Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Freedom of choice comes with an emotional tax: Interview with Sheena Iyengar

By John Cheeran
No one asks better questions, or comes up with more intriguing answers, that’s how Malcolm Gladwell describes Sheena Iyengar, 40, a professor at the Columbia Business School, who has written the highly acclaimed book The Art of Choosing.
As a daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar had to make tough choices while growing up in United States.
When Iyengar was three years old, she was diagnosed with a rare form of retinitis pigmentos, an inherited disease of retinal degeneration. By 6th grade, Iyengar had lost the ability to read, and by 11th grade, she had lost her sight entirely and could only perceive light. When she was 13, her father died of a heart attack.
Despite such trying circumstances, Iyengar says she has chosen the big things in her life. During a visit to Bangalore, she speaks about the emotional tax that each one of us has to pay for the freedom of choice.

Excerpts from an interview:

Has this book far exceeded your expectations?

I didn’t really know what expectations to have. Yes, exceeded. It changed my life, actually. It really depends on your definition of exceed and expectations. Everything that has happened since the book has come out is positive. I’m generally a positive person.

Has life chosen you or you have chosen life?

I would say that the big things in life, to some extent, I have chosen. So much of our life is determined by what happens to us. The only choice we have is how we react.

Have you ever felt that your choices have been limited by your circumstances?

I think that’s true for everyone that our choices are based on our circumstances. When I applied for my PhD programme, I actually was thinking of becoming a clinical psychologist. And I went to my advisor when I was an undergrad. My professor wanted a list of schools I was applying to so that he would write a letter of recommendation. I gave him the list and he said he cannot write this letter until I put Stanford University on the list. Stanford didn’t have a clinical programme but since my professor insisted I put Stanford on the list. I wanted to go to Yale. I was told my some other professors that I have made it to Yale and they congratulated me. But I didn’t get the offer and kept waiting. And when I went to see my professor, the one who insisted on me adding Stanford to the list, said ‘Yale called me but I told them you don’t belong there.’ You need to go to Stanford, he told me. Then Stanford called and I went. That effectively changed my life.

Had you been living in India, would you have written this book?

Oh. I don’t know how to answer that question. Who knows what I would have been had I grown up in India. I don’t think I’m capable of figuring that out.

Do you believe in free will? In India, many believe that everything in life is pre-ordained. So do choices matter?

I do think choices matter. I don’t think you have free will about everything. I think from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, or the moment you born till the moment you die, you are constantly being manipulated by circumstances, your family, friends, your government, no matter what it is, they are manipulating you, influencing you.

To go to the other side, and say you have no free will is also incorrect. If you consciously decide that something is important then you have the ability to veto the negative influence. I can say that, to a certain degree, I can exercise some degree of free will. I have the power to exercise my free will and say no or yes or do something different in certain situations.

Can beggars be choosers?

Yes. Why not? They make choices. They may have fewer choices. Certainly beggars have more constraints but everybody has the ability to make choices in the midst of constraints.

What’s more important -- having multiple choices or having information on whatever choices you have?

It is much more important to be able to understand how your choices differ. I could it put another way. The value of choice depends on your ability to perceive differences between the options.

Do you think Indians are ‘super thinkers’ when confronted with multiple choices in daily life?

No. I wouldn’t call them super thinkers. I do think that they have certain decision making methods. Indian women are more likely to, when picking out a sari, jewellery, do it in a group and get multiple opinions and reach a consensus.
That is probably how they better cope with the rise in a range of options. It seems consensus is the driving criteria for determining which is the choice you make.

For a society such as India what’s true—the more is less or the less is more?

I think if there is one thing the Indians can benefit from, in terms of thinking about choice, is how to create choice.
There is a lot more emphasis here on difficulties and limitations in Indian society. And sometimes, I think, that thwarts the ability to be creative. The less can be more if you are able to use those constraints to generate new and useful options.

Do you have any tips for Sophie as in Sophie’s Choice.

Aaaah. That’s what so terrible about that choice, right? Can you advise her anything? If you tell her not to choose the outcome is terrible. If you tell her to choose, the outcome is terrible.

What would you tell her?

I don’t think you can tell anybody what to do in that case.

Is choice a science or art?

It ultimately is an art. Science can help you become more skillful but in the end your ability to choose depends on your ability to balance the pros and cons, the possibilities and the limitations, the uncertainties, the contradictions. And so much of what makes the choice work out in the end is what you do with the choice you make.

Do you think your book will help one make better choices?

I hope so. That, certainly, is the intention behind the book.

What’s next for you?

It will take a few years for me to write another book. I may write about globalisation, something I teach about and research about. Or I might write about the psychology of money.

You write that freedom of choice comes with an emotional tax. Who pays it more, man or woman?

It does. In different ways in different domains. I don’t think one pays more tax than the other.

Is there anything else I should have asked you, which I haven’t?

No, I think that’s fine.

1 comment:

Faraaz said...

Can you please do a review for my soon to be released romantic fiction novel? Please get in touch with me at

John Cheeran at Blogged