Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, has studied choice for the last 2 decades. She is of bicultural background- her parents Sikhs from Delhi, her education American – both with very different views on individual choice.
In her TEDtalk on “The Art of Choosing,” she discusses 3 assumptions that are deeply embedded in the American framework of decision-making (they almost seem innate), and compares them with how people of different cultures / backgrounds react to them.
1st assumption: Make your own choices
One of her studies compares how Anglo-American and Asian-American children react to choice. Anglo-American children fared far better when they chose their own puzzles as opposed to when they were told which ones to do. The Asian- American kids did best when it was their mothers who chose the puzzles!
I rejected The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, until Desi recommended and wrote about it here and here. The book received massive publicity among parenting groups because of the tough methods the Tiger Mother used. She decided that her daughters would play instruments, that her older daughter would play the piano; and that her second daughter would play the violin. And succeed they both did.
According to Sheena Iyengar, first generation children are strongly influenced by their immigrant parents approach to choice. “Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one’s own preferences.” Choices are made based on how they might benefit not only the individual self, but more likely a group of people who were infinitely tied together.
2nd assumption: More options –> Better choices
Iyengar ran studies with people in the former Soviet Union after their markets had opened up. In a gesture of hospitality, she offered her participants a drink: 7 types of soda. They perceived those 7 drinks as one choice. Then she tried something else. She offered the 7 types of soda as well as juice and water. They now perceived that as 3 choices – soda, juice, and water.
Some of her participants associated the following words and phrases with choice:
It is too much. We don’t need everything that is there,
Many of these choices are quite artificial,
We don’t all see choices in the same places or to the same extent as others. If one is not sufficiently prepared to deal with as much choice as is around in many places today, it can all become overwhelming, and create fear – the exact opposite of what choice is supposed to do.
I remember when I moved to Montreal, buying a simple t-shirt would become a nightmare. I always waited until the last minute. All my t-shirts had holes in them, were faded, shrunken, or out of shape by the time I dragged myself over to the Eaton Centre on St. Catherine Street. One shop after another showed-off similar merchandise at only slightly different prices. So how does one choose the best t-shirt? I couldn’t be bothered to do the market research that my parents and brother were experts at. In any case, no matter what I did, I would feel ripped-off. So I’d pick one, get it, and that’s it. Done. Walk out feeling good. If I checked out any more shops – either the price would be fairer for a similar t-shirt, or the fit and colour would suit me better than the one I had bought.
3rd assumption: Never say NO to choice
Sheena Iyengar discusses how doctors at NICU’s (Neonatal Intensive Care Units) in the US gave certain choices about the fate of their babies to the parents. There came a point where a choice had to be made about some babies of life support: either to remove the life-support, or to leave it in which case the baby would either die in a few days, or stay in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. In France, it was the doctors who decided when and whether the life support would be removed, where in the US the final decision was with the parents.
Ms. Iyengar and her co-researchers studied how this decision-making process affected the parents. They found that the parents in US had coped with their loss differently from their French counterparts.
French parents were more likely to say things like: “Noah was here for so little time but he taught us so much. He gave us a new perspective on life.”
American parents said things like: “What if?”
“I feel as if I’ve played a role in an execution.”
When asked if they would give up that choice, the American parents all said NO.
When Leila and Rahul were at the Queen Mary Hospital’s NICU in Hong Kong, we weren’t told exactly what was going on with them all the time, and our opinion was seldom asked. We felt confident in our doctors and nurses though, sure that they were capable and doing their very best for our children. If we had been faced with removing life-support, that’s another question. Not an easy one to hypothesize about. I don’t know what the policy at the Queen Mary Hospital is when it comes to that.
Please take the time to watch this talk. It’s about 20 minutes long, one of the longer TEDtalks that I have come across; and one of the best. Don’t stop the show until after Ms. Iyengar responds to how she herself, being blind, deals with choice since it is such a visual thing for most of us. She completes her answer poetically:
“As far as I can tell, a rose by any other name probably does look different and maybe even smells different.”
How do you handle choice? Do you thrive when you have more options, or does it create fear? How much choice do you give your children? What happens to the parenting if you and your partner perceive choice differently because of your different backgrounds?
I’m on the lookout for Sheena Iyengar’s book: The Art of Choosing
Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband Maher, and two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. She was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can read more of her stories at Our Little Yogis (http://natashadevalia.com)