Friday, April 27, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Choosing

Life is often a stream of choices. The choices that we make - from the mundane ones to the course-altering ones - lead our journeys through beautiful vistas, shocking unexpected turns, rounding on smooth valleys, carrying us up to dizzying altitudes, dropping us down sudden pitfalls, and pushing us towards dark dead-ends. Choice is celebrated. The freedom, the power, the very right to be able to choose something is a fundamental necessity for most of us. We pity those with little or no choice, vociferously argue about one’s free-will, and regard our lives to be doomed and stripped of dignity without the ability to exercise our power to choose and decide.

What’s more to Choosing? Plenty more. In this excellent book, Dr. Iyengar presents decades of research (of hers and others) exploring Choice from multiple dimensions. How important is choice to our biological survival instincts, how do different people perceive choice from the complicated lens of religion and culture? How is choice connected to one’s identity? Is choice the medium through which we express our individuality? But then how much of our “independent” choices  are really that unique and independent, resisting social mores, economic influences, and factors of subtle manipulation? When do we make rational choices, and when do we make impulsive, intuitive ones? Is one better than the other? All the time? Can there ever be too much choice? Could choice be white noise, a distraction, a detractor, a burden to cloud our decisions? Can a plethora of choices always keep us happy and satisfied? And finally, my personal irony - choice as a tool for punishment - the dilemmas between equally unpleasant choices that paralyze and destroy one’s peace. Is choice really a blessing in such instances? So many questions, so many issues on Choice? Yes, Dr. Iyengar beautifully writes of the many facets of choice, its implications on our everyday life, and the policies that govern our Nations and Markets.

From beginning to end, this is a brilliantly engaging book. Dr. Iyengar is blind. So, she draws stories from her own life to explain the role of Choice. These sections were the most thought-provoking to me. I probably had goosebumps every few minutes. Every sentence is beautiful and insightful. The depth of research that fills the pages is so satisfying to the researcher in me. Since the areas of cognitive decision-making and information processing cross into my purview of study, I was very happy to see all the classic papers cited and talked about. Most of the book can be thought of as an exhaustive literature review in the fields of Choice & Decision-Making. But, it’s Dr. Iyengar’s talent to weave a compelling and readable book that makes all the difference between reading a bunch of journal abstracts and this one. She has a sure flair for telling stories in a simple and relatable manner that doesn’t compromise on the science, but still retains the reader’s fascination and understanding of the big picture of the findings. I loved her writing and narration, and can’t mention enough good things. She has become a mentor and an inspiration for me - as an impressive researcher, a great writer, and a hard-working human-being.

The rest of this long and hideous post is going to contain my reflections (not review) of the chapters of the book. I want to record these basic take-aways from the book for future reference. So, please ignore the following if you want to read this book ( I very highly recommend it) and find it for yourself.

Chapter 1: We perceive our ability and opportunity to make choices, only if we believe that we possess a measure of control over our lives. The one who believes that his/her life cannot be controlled or changed, will never exercise their freedom to choose. We berate such individuals, such fatalists. But, through chilling studies that were conducted on rats and dogs, it is found that even rats (the so-called animals with no sophisticated thoughts or beliefs) either choose to survive or choose to not. Even animals choose to survive only if they believe they can change the situation and have been rewarded in the past for trying to change. Animals that have been put in experiments (circumstances) wherein they have never “won” a way out or received any rewards, give up more easily, more frequently. Sound familiar? If someone’s life has been tough through and through, and they have never been able to change their trying circumstances, they are likely to not grab onto the choices that suddenly come their way, even if you teach them to.

This belief on the extent of control we have over our lives is crucial to our well-being, the optimism we learn to acquire, and the resilience to fight for survival. We give up choosing, we see no more choices when we’ve been beaten down every time. 

Chapter 2: A favorite chapter. Individualism vs. Collectivism. The individualists want to choose, and choose for themselves, while the collectivists are trained to let others choose for them. Is one way better than the other? Not necessarily, and surely not all the time. But, choice is viewed differently by different cultures. The East’s view of arranged marriages is born from the collectivists’ strategy. The family shall choose for the betterment of both families, the individual’s duty is to obey. The individual in these cultures often doesn’t seem stifled by the lack of (or limited) choice, but conforms to it to in the name of duty and trust. And such behavior and adherence to duty is celebrated and rewarded. Duty vs. self-interest - another favorite topic of mine. But this system works (or used to work) because the communities are dependent on each other much more than in the individualistic society. There is a greater expectation of reciprocity, and hence the necessity to follow certain duties for the betterment of the entire community and oneself.

But what is fascinating is how this view of choice affects children and adults from these different cultures. Interesting studies show that Asian kids are more at ease and more successful when their mothers choose certain things for them, whereas their American counterparts feel infuriated and perform poorly. Understandably.

There is a good discussion of communism vs. capitalism in the context of choice, and how even people from ex-communist countries who waited to be liberated, no longer rejoice and celebrate their freedom to choose. They feel burdened, dissatisfied and unhappy with too many choices and not being able to use them all. Orthodox, religious individuals with rules and constraining choices on how to live, rate themselves as happier and more satisfied than individuals who are not religious and have endless choices. Why?

Freedom to choose also hands us the responsibility to chart our own course. There are no signs, omens, signals, rules, duties, faith, prayers to guide us. If we choose wrongly, we have nothing to fall back on to assuage our confusion and fear.

Sometimes, we like things to be more structured. Sometimes, we like rules. And sometimes, we like fewer choices. A revelation? Perceptions on choice, freedom, and opportunity are more complex and layered than we think.

Chapter 3: Self-expression is accomplished through the choices we make to present ourselves. The clothes we choose to wear, the things we buy, the car we ride, the interior of our homes, the opinions we hold, the decisions we stand by - make a statement, paint a picture, a unique picture (we like to believe) of our identity. Who we are, affect our choices, and our choices consequently affect who we become. There is this obsession to be unique, to be different, to choose differently. And yet, how similar are we! Are we more similar to each other than we want to believe? We don’t want to be too different and unique, for after all, we want to fit-in. But we don’t want to follow the herd either. We keep looking for that elusive balance - the “optimum level of uniqueness” that doesn’t socially isolate us, and yet, just makes us step out a little, just a hint.

We will all buy Iphones and Ipads, but we will still vehemently believe to be unique in our decisions. “The reason why I bought it is different from hers.” “I don’t want to buy this color - everyone seems to carry it.” Ah, the clever trap laid by the marketing geniuses! Nobody is free from social pressures. No identity is perhaps supremely authentic, as much as we strive to believe. We constantly align our perceptions to others’ perceptions of us. I buy something not just for myself and to assert my individuality, but also with the understanding of how it will be perceived. We can’t live with people making wrong assumptions and holding incorrect perceptions of our identity! If so, we have to rush to rectify their perception.

So, choosing is not such a private activity after all. It’s more of a social one.

Chapter 4: Rationally derived choices, and rationally chosen decisions are not always sensible. Sometimes, heuristics and intuition (or informed intuition) is better. Emotions cannot be quantified and fit into rational models of effective decision-making. Intuition isn’t necessarily irrational. We have evolved to be sensitive to many subtle cues around us to help us understand our environment better. It’s because our great-great-great-grand ancestor sprinted to safety when he heard the subtle movements of far-away rustling leaves which intuited to him of an approaching predator, you and me are alive. He didn’t do math or wait for a solid indication, he went with his gut. But his “gut” was informed by very very subtle, nuanced cues that are sometimes hard and impossible to verbalize, understand, or quantify. This book gives astounding examples of intuitive decision-making by doctors, rescue-workers, and even pilots.

But heuristic decision-making can also be terribly flawed and riddled with biases. We might choose to never ever EVER buy a certain brand of TV again, even if statistically speaking, your bad experience was only one of several million positive ones. Math doesn’t come into the picture. Logic flies out the window. Your 1 bad experience will lead you away from it. You will “rationally” choose to do so.

So, how rationally informed are our choices, if we talk of freedom and responsibility of decision-making?

Chapter 5: So, the things that we buy have little to do with personality, authenticity of individuality, and more to do with social forces. What about market forces? I have always wondered about the fashion industry. Are these fashion choices shaped by trend? Who decides the trend? You? The fashion diva? Or the fashion retailer?

This is a chapter that marketing professionals and students would love (and I guess, they would already know). Packaging, color and so many other little tricks influence YOU, the informed, rational, unique, individualistic, responsible customer, in ways that make you seem like a brainwashed automaton.There is illusion of variety, illusion of choice, and illusion of self-expression. You are manipulated to pick up even a boring sweater, because of the clever deviousness of marketing geniuses and fashion retailers who read you and your personality 2 years ahead of time. They expose you to fashion choices that make you believe that you are setting the trend than the other way around. Due to the necessity to fit in, you would rationally choose to follow the trend, albeit in your own slightly specialized way, thanks to the clever little variations you are provided with at the stores!

In psychological terms, you are primed to choose in a certain way, and select certain things. Your subconscious is manipulated and influenced in subtle and harmless ways (after all, fashion doesn’t hurt) to choose the “right” things. This is harmless enough, but what if the consequences to the manipulation are high and significant?

Chapter 6: Too much choice - how can it ever be bad? Well, our brain has its limitations, no matter how distasteful it is for us to hear. We can only process limited amounts of information (5,7,or 9 chunks of information), so hundreds of choices will overwhelm us, confuse us, and contribute to bad decisions more often. And, it leaves us less-satisfied and exhausted all the time. If there are 900 choices of shoes, how long will it take you to find the one you like and that suits you? Especially if you want to try everything and not miss out on something better? If you narrow them down to 100 similar shoes after hours of trials, what next? You tear your hair out, finally pick the blue one and come home and wonder, maybe the green looks better? You return the blue, get the green one and soon wonder about another color, another design that your friend raves about. When will it ever end?! And the more effort you expend to choose the perfect pair, the more you seem tired and the more you seem to compromise on quality, eventually. Or not buy anything at all.

Ok, that’s just about shoes. Thanks to the internet and the review system, we can live with such annoyances of capitalistic excess. But what if you had 250 medical insurance policies, 550 investment options, 700 retirement plans? How will you wade through so many choices when the outcome is pivotal to your life and well-being? And most importantly, why should there be so many choices on something so basic and essential to all of us? And besides, our goals are essentially the same - save as much money as possible, in the end.

I once saw a two year old at a fare, wailing and rolling on the floor, throwing a tantrum of her life. Her mom guessed she was hungry. So, she started, “Honey, would you like a banana?” “Nooooooooooooooo”, shrieked the toddler. “Would you like apple sauce?...Would you like to have some cheese...maybe some yogurt.... how about some grapes... would you like to have some milk? Some pasta? Some french-fries? Mac and Cheese? A smoothie? A pretzel? That ice-cream over there?A nice sandwich? Some gummy bears”....
And all the while, the toddler wailed and screamed and kicked and consistently shrieked, “NOOOOOO!”

I wanted to intervene very badly, and tell the mom - Lady, she is two! She is hungry, she is tired. Just give her something to eat! Put something in front of her, feed her if need be. Stop asking these annoying questions. You are not giving her the exalted freedom to choose, you are just irritating and confusing her. Besides, she is not in a position to choose for herself. It’s okay, you don’t have to read the entire menu to a 2 year old. It’s okay, you’re not depriving her or controlling her by making a simple choice for her as her mother in her hungry state!! And she is two!!

I am not kidding when I say this. Some time later, the same lady and the kid walks into the restroom with me. And the lady goes, “Honey, would you like to go in here, or here, or here.... or here”.... If I hadn’t bit myself, I would have slapped her.

Sometimes, we don’t know where to draw the line. Sometimes too many choices are ridiculous and contribute to very little. Sometimes, it’s okay to rely on others to choose for us. Sometimes, it’s okay to not have an array of choices that confuse and interfere with your ability to make an informed, wise decision. Sometimes, too many choices are unnecessary and just plain white-noise.

Chapter 7: The final and my personal favorite. Remember Sophie’s choice? A sadistic Nazi gives the terrorized Sophie two choices as she enters the concentration camp with her two children - either you choose which child should live and which should die, or both die. Choose. The choice is all yours.

Such choices are cruel punishments. It’s empty and even more meaningless when you hear others say - “Well, you always have a choice!” Such choices break you forever with the burden of carrying the guilt for the rest of your lives.

Patients and adults in the U.S have a say in all their medical procedures. Adults and patients in France, don’t have much of a say. The doctors decide what to do and when to pull the plug. Dr. Iyengar conducted a series of studies with parents from the U.S and France who had lost their newborn babies. If a newborn is critically ill with 50% chance of death, and 50% chance of surviving in a vegetative state for the rest of its life, the decision that confronts the parents is pure torture. Parents in the U.S get to decide whether or not to pull the plug on their child. They make the tough decision. They get to choose, for the medical policies are rightfully amended in this country to always let the patient/loved-ones choose. The French parents don’t get to decide. The doctors decide. Which set of parents is better-off now?

Very interestingly, after a year or two of such a painful experience, it’s been found that the French parents were able to move on and cope with the loss much better than their American counterparts. The American parents fell into depression because they took the brunt of making the painful decision, even if they believed it was the rational one. They were still haunted by the “what if’s”, whereas the French parents could console themselves by saying, “it wasn’t up to me”.... the doctor’s decision absolved them, saved them. The American parents resented the choice, the decision. They blamed the system, and were unhappy and guilt-ridden.

Something to think about. It’s merciful if painful choices are removed from you. Coping with loss is easier than coping with guilt.

My fingers ache, so I should stop now. But this was a great book and a great exercise to write down my thoughts on all the chapters. The one thing that I wished Dr. Iyengar talked about a little more is Choice in the light of prediction and astrology. She touches on it in the epilogue, but I would have liked a chapter. But such discussions enter the realm of mysticism and philosophy, and as a scientist she probably didn’t want to speculate, and decided to leave a few mysteries for the reader to figure out.

An excellent book of insights into you and your life as shaped and seen through Choice. It’s a real art to choose. 

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