February 25, 2010 / 5:31 PM / 7 years ago

Business Books: Choices and how we make them

NEW YORK, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Whether it's a career or a meal, we want to choose. Exercising control feels good. It defines who we are. It's what creates our lives.

The desire and need for choice are universal, and so innate that we act on it even before we can express it, says Sheena Iyengar in "The Art of Choosing" (Twelve, $25.99). A study of infants shows they not only want to hear music, but crave the power to choose it.

Beyond that, how and why we make choices, and our path to that end is a fascinating journey that is at once liberating and confusing.

Among Iyengar's findings:

-- We have a better memory for things that excite our senses or appeal to our emotions than for dry statistics.

-- When voting, we tend to equate physical appearance with the candidate's competence.

-- Position is a primary influence. Items displayed at either end of store shelves sell more than those in middle. First and last candidates in a job interview have more impact.

Iyengar, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, grew up "in a culture in which you lived by rules -- set either by God or your parents." She explains how we are shaped by cultural traditions and societal influences.

The Columbia University professor also conducted surveys with people of all ages from all walks of life and Asian and Western sensibilities.

Noting the trend for global organizations to link diverse groups of employees in locations around the world, she says they need to implement practices that ensure a high degree of efficiency, without running afoul of cultural differences or expectations.

To avoid conflict, Iyengar believes "the first step is always to figure out what people really want. Talk to them individually to determine their needs and priorities, and then search for common ground."

In a political context, a world leader's choice should be guided by "10 percent intuition to set goals and 90 percent reason to achieve them," she said.

Studies of individualist and collectivist societies reveal that one links identity to group affiliation, while the other emphasizes the importance of personal choice.

True choice, the author says, requires a person to have the ability to select an option and not be prevented from it by an external force.

When we cannot maintain control or it is taken away from us, as demonstrated by an experiment conducted on dogs, we feel helpless and immobilized.

That conditioning, when applied to society by, say, a totalitarian government, can result in a passive and compliant population. For example, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some people who had longed for freedom, were unable to cope, economically or mentally. The author spoke with a woman who felt adrift in her new life, without the restrictive albeit familiar controls of the "old days" to which an entire generation of people had been conditioned.

Sometimes we are at the mercy of influences we can't even detect. The author, who is blind, says our choices about what we wear -- styles and fashion colors -- fall into a different category of manipulation. They are the result of a collective effort of designers, celebrities, advertisers and the media.

As we seek to define ourselves, research shows our need to appear sophisticated. In a test of identical wines, we will choose the higher-priced one as the best tasting. That fear of being exposed as clueless was also borne out in a study where most participants chose "L'eau du Robinet" to tap water.

Iyengar, who holds a doctorate in social psychology from Stanford University and a degree from Wharton School of business, says our minds operate on two levels simultaneously: one, conscious and reflective, the other unconscious and automatic. We can subconsciously register information without becoming consciously aware of it. (Reporting by Gunna Dickson; Editing by Eddie Evans)

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