Can There Be Too Much Choice? It’s a Cultural Thing

I recently wrote about the trials of choosing cereal at Wal-Mart, and friend and fellow blogger MaDonna followed up with her own post calling the cereal aisle “one of the top 5 places expats hate to visit in the US.”

Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University and leading expert on choice, understands our pain. She writes in her book The Art of Choosing,

In 1994, the year I had my first inkling that there might be such a thing as too much choice, over 500,000 different consumer goods were already available in the United States. By 2003, the number had increased to nearly 700,000, an upward trend that shows no signs of letting up. Technological advances frequently introduce new categories of products into our lives. Some of them—cell phones, computers, digital cameras—become indispensable, and soon enough the options proliferate. Just as importantly, not only are there more goods on the market, there are more ways to get at them. The typical supermarket, which carried 3,750 different items in 1949, now boasts some 45,000 items. Walmart and other “big-box” retailers offer smorgasbords of over 100,000 products to Americans in just about every part of the country. And if you don’t find what you’re looking for within a few blocks, you’ll certainly find it with a few clicks. The Internet extends your reach well beyond local venues, providing access to the 100,000 DVDs on Netflix.com, 24 million books (and millions of other products) on Amazon.com, and 15 million singles on Match.com.

Following is a fascinating TedGlobal talk by Iyangar in which she discusses cultural differences in the valuing of choice. In her introduction to the video on her website, she says,

In America, choice is sacred. We believe in its limitless power and we worship it for the possibilities it offers. For Americans, choice is liberty, which is subordinate only to life itself in the Declaration of Independence. So it can be almost impossible to accept that not only are there countries and cultures that do not subscribe to the American ideal of choice, but that they wouldn’t necessarily be better off if more choice suddenly became available to them. I explore the great variation across the globe in beliefs about who should choose and when, how much choice should be available, and when choice is a burden rather than a pleasure.

Iyangar starts her presentation with an experience she had in a Japanese restaurant and ends in the US with a story of how her blindness affected how she chose the right fingernail polish. In between she shares research and anecdotes from around the world. Enjoy.

[photo: “Fi,” by Michael Hopkinsii, used under a Creative Commons license]

Back in the States after Being Gone for a Long Time (poem)

Back in the States after being gone for a long time,
I’m standing
in the cereal aisle at Wal-Mart.
My list says “bran cereal” with no instructions
on how to pick out the right kind.
I tell the kids to quiet down
and remind them
that “everybody here knows English
so they can understand everything you say
now.”

A friend turns the corner and sees us: “Hey!
Long time no see.
Didn’t know you were back.
Look at you.
A little grey around the edges,
but not too bad.
Bet you’re glad to be
home.”

He’s describing me like you’d describe a used book:
Acceptable.
Slight shelf wear.
Dust jacket missing.
Discoloration on edge of spine.
A few underlined passages and extensive notes in margins.
Some dogeared
pages.

We chat about
how big the kids look and about
the new high school being built,
and then he says again,
“Bet you’re glad to be home.”
This time I respond with “Well,
both places have their advantages.”
My daughter shows me a box of
off-brand Fruit Loops,
raising her eyebrows like two question marks.
I shrug my shoulders and she puts it in the
cart.

That is the way I feel,
like a used
book.

But deep inside, I’d rather
be a manuscript.
Like one of those manuscripts
that’s been sent to
44 publishers and rejected
44 times.
Then the author’s wife sees it
in the trash folder
on the computer and sends it
in for one last try.
It’s picked up
and becomes a bestseller,
and it’s made into a movie
that wins two or
three Academy Awards.
That’s what I’d like to be, now
that I’m starting over
with this new life
in a new place that everybody says is
home.