Sheena Iyengar: Why Are Some Choices So Paralyzing?

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 10, 2017 1:24 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Decisions Decisions Decisions.

About Sheena Iyengar's TED Talk

Psycho-economist Sheena Iyengar explains how we can actively use choice as a tool to help us arrive at decisions we can live with.

About Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar studies how people choose. Her team at the Columbia Business School analyzes tough and even wrenching choices - such as the medical decisions we face in our final years of life. Her book The Art Of Choosing shares some of these stories.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about decisions - how we make them, why they can be so hard and how lots of choices don't necessarily help, like when you're standing in the grocery aisle paralyzed by the prospect of choosing from 36 varieties of spaghetti sauce.

SHEENA IYENGAR: Yeah, we should try to minimize the number of times we're paralyzed over what ought to be mundane choices.

RAZ: This is Sheena Iyengar.

IYENGAR: Look, at the end of the day, the stakes on this aren't really very high, so just choose.

RAZ: Sheena is a professor at Columbia Business School.

IYENGAR: I study why choice matters to people and how they can get the most from this thing called choice.

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RAZ: But even though Sheena says we shouldn't get paralyzed by things like spaghetti sauce, she still admits that it happens all the time. She even has a term for it.

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IYENGAR: The choice overload problem.

RAZ: The choice overload problem. Sheena explained that idea from the TED stage.

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IYENGAR: So when I was a graduate student at Stanford University, I used to go to this very, very upscale grocery store. It was a store called Draeger's. They had 250 different kinds of mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits and vegetables and more than two dozen different kinds of bottled water. I used to love going to this store, but on one occasion, I asked myself, well, how come you never buy anything?

So I one day decided to do a little experiment, and we picked jam for our experiment. They had 348 different kinds of jam. We set up a little tasting booth right near the entrance of the store. We either put out six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam, and we looked at two things. First, in which case were people more likely to, you know, stop, sample some jam? More people stopped when there were 24 - about 60 percent - than when there were six - about 40 percent.

The next thing we looked at is in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? Now we see the opposite effect. Of the people who stopped when there were 24, only 3 percent of them actually bought a jar of jam. Of the people who stopped when there were six, well, now we saw that 30 percent of them actually bought a jar of jam.

Now, if you do the math, people were at least six times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they encountered six than if they encountered 24. Now, the main reason for this is because, well, we might enjoy gazing at those giant walls of mayonnaises, mustards, vinegars, jams, but we can't actually do the math of comparing and contrasting and actually picking from that stunning display.

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RAZ: So it was this study that made Sheena think maybe we've gone too far. Maybe companies are overloading consumers with choice, which is why Sheena's advice to companies today is to cut.

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IYENGAR: Cut. You've heard it said before, but it's never been more true than today that less is more. When Procter & Gamble went from 26 different kinds of Head & Shoulders to 15, they saw an increase in sales by 10 percent. When the Golden Cat Corporation got rid of their 10 worst-selling cat litter products, they saw an increase in profits by 87 percent. You know, the average grocery store today offers you 45,000 products, but the ninth biggest retailer in the world today is Aldi, and it offers you only 1,400 products - one kind of canned tomato sauce.

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RAZ: Wow. That's totally counterintuitive. But, I mean, companies are actually seeing an increase in sales when when they reduce the number of choices.

IYENGAR: Yes. It just looks less overwhelming. I can now see that, oh, OK, this is the Head & Shoulder I want. And when Cotsco recently reduced their number of choices, they actually saw an increase in sales.

RAZ: Really? They just, like, cut back things they offer?

IYENGAR: They just cut across the board, yeah. Even Wal-Mart is beginning to cut across.

RAZ: So what is it about choice that overwhelms us, that can paralyze us?

IYENGAR: So I think there's a few things that happen when we get paralyzed by choice. Sometimes when we're trying to choose amongst really minor things, like, let's say you're looking at a menu in a restaurant and you start deliberating over - I don't know - the steak versus the salmon versus the salad and you start contemplating all different kinds of criteria by which you want to compare and contrast your options.

RAZ: Yeah.

IYENGAR: But I think the other times when we get paralyzed is because it really is something that we are very aware is very, very consequential. Like, should I get married or not? Should I have a child or not? There's a lot of unknowns there.

RAZ: So how is it that both of those scenarios produce agony?

IYENGAR: Because there's this thing called heart versus mind or gut versus reason, however you want to label it. Even though they're both working in concert, I think the reality is you're constantly asking yourself two questions. What do I want? And what should I choose?

And those don't give you the same answers because when you ask yourself what should I choose, it tells you what you ought to want tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. When you ask yourself what you want, we're very aware of the fact that what I want right now may not be what I want in five minutes.

RAZ: So that's what it's about? It's about what I want and what I should want.

IYENGAR: That's the inherent conflict.

RAZ: Do all of us feel this conflict, you know, when it comes to, say, you know, choosing jam or choosing an entree? Like, is this just part of human behavior?

IYENGAR: The desire for personal control and competency is innate, but everything else about choice is learned.

RAZ: Wow.

IYENGAR: And a lot of what your culture teaches you is how to think about your life and whether to perceive things in terms of choice or in terms of something else, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

IYENGAR: I think to the extent that you see a choice is how you frame your life. That's not a given. We, as Americans, think that choice is a, quote, "objective thing." It's not. It's a very subjective thing.

RAZ: And because choice is learned, Sheena Iyengar says choice can work differently in different cultures. And she got a glimpse of that early on in her career when she was doing some research in Japan.

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IYENGAR: On my first day, I went to a restaurant, and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar. After a pause, the waiter said, one does not put sugar in green tea. I know, I said. I'm aware of this custom, but I really like my tea sweet. In response, he gave me an even more courteous version of the same explanation.

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IYENGAR: One does not put sugar in green tea. I understand, I said, that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, but I'd like to put some sugar in my green tea.

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IYENGAR: Surprised by my insistence, the waiter took up the issue with the manager. Pretty soon...

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IYENGAR: ...A lengthy discussion ensued. And finally, the manager came over to me and said, I am very sorry. We do not have sugar.

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IYENGAR: Well, since I couldn't have my tea the way I wanted it, I ordered a cup of coffee, which the waiter brought over promptly. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.

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IYENGAR: My failure to procure myself a cup of sweet green tea was not due to a simple misunderstanding. This was due to a fundamental difference in our ideas about choice. The American way, to quote Burger King, is to have it your way because, as Starbucks says, happiness is in your choices.

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IYENGAR: But from the Japanese perspective, it's their duty to protect those who don't know any better.

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IYENGAR: In this case, the ignorant gaijin for making the wrong choice. Americans tend to believe that they have reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans.

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RAZ: So why is choice seen as like this great American virtue?

IYENGAR: Well, you could argue that the unique history of this country made us more likely to have it than any other country. And that is because in 1776, our forefathers began to think about what a political democratic institution might look like. But at the same time, you have Adam Smith and capitalism and the idea of the independent individual consumer. And pretty shortly thereafter, you have Ralph Waldo Emerson with the ideas of self-reliance.

RAZ: I mean, there must be a correlation between an emphasis on choice and a culture that elevates the individual over the collective?

IYENGAR: Oh, there is. So certainly in cultures that are more collectivistic, they tend to value more social conformity, more of a sense of duty and responsibility. And so you ask yourself, what are my responsibilities? And what would other people expect of me, whereas cultures that value more independence or individualism value more self-reliance, personal preference-matching.

What's really good for me? What's the right fit for me? What is it that I really care about? What do I want? That being said, individualism is on the rise. And that's probably one of our biggest exports around the globe.

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RAZ: The question is - does everyone want that export? Does everyone want lots of choices? Sheena decided to go to Eastern Europe to find out.

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IYENGAR: Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly Communist countries who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society. For Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge.

When asked what words and images do you associate with choice, Grzegorz (ph) from Warsaw said, ah, for me it is fear. There are some dilemmas, you see. I am used to no choice. Bohdan (ph) from Kiev said in response to how he felt about the new consumer marketplace, it is too much. We do not need everything that is there. And Tomasz (ph), a young Polish man said, I do not need 20 kinds of chewing gum. I don't mean to say that I want no choice. But many of these choices are quite artificial.

The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. When there are too many choices to compare and contrast, instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Americans have so often tried to disseminate their ideas of choice, believing that they will be or ought to be welcomed with open hearts and minds. But the history books and the daily news tell us it doesn't always work out that way.

Americans themselves are discovering that unlimited choice seems more attractive in theory than in practice. No matter where we're from, we all have a responsibility to open ourselves up to a wider array of what choice can do and what it can represent. It teaches us when and how to act. It brings us that much closer to inspiring the hope and achieving the freedom that choice promises but doesn't always deliver. If we learn to speak to one another, then we can begin to see choice in all its strangeness, complexity and compelling beauty. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Sheena Iyengar teaches at Columbia Business School. You can see all of her talks at ted.com Have you ever been to TGI Friday's? I mean, talk about paralysis.

IYENGAR: I actually have not been in a TGIF's.

RAZ: (Laughter).

IYENGAR: I am a big Shake Shack girl. And I am a big In-N-Out Burger girl. And I guess that is because there really is just one choice.

RAZ: Yeah. You would have a nervous breakdown at TGI Fridays.

IYENGAR: no. I'd probably just ask the waiter or waitress to tell me what to get. And I'd be happy with that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.