Book Review by Dana Kendall, Ph.D.
Director of Research and Assistant Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology
The Art of Choosing, 2010 by Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D. (http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/)
This blog entry is the first of a series of installments, reviewing this book.
The Art of Choosing is not about how to make better decisions. Quite the contrary, it presents evidence suggesting that decision making is much more complicated than it appears at first blush. This should not be surprising because in the realm of social psychology (i.e., the study of human cognition and behavior in social contexts), nothing is ever simple. I was attracted to the book because of my own partiality to the field of social psychology—which comprises the foundation of I/O Psychology.
About the Author
Although the Dr. Iyengar has studied under some famous social psychologists like Martin Seligman, Mark Lepper, and Dan Gilbert, she has a scholarly track record that demonstrates her competency as a researcher in her own right—currently a professor at Columbia University. She was born to Sikh parents who immigrated to the U.S. before she was born. Early in life, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that left her blind by the time she was a teenager.
Why Does Choice Matter?
Dr. Iyengar opens the book with a claim that choice is an integral part of what makes us human. Uh, but wait a second…..even animals like to have choice! At this point in the narrative, the author describes the perfect hotel that is specifically designed to meet your every need. It has endless varieties of every activity you can imagine and hotel staff ready to wait on you 24/7. For hypothetical purposes, the reader is asked to assume that every single conceivable need s/he could possibly have will be ultimately satisfied.
So, what’s the catch? What could possibly taint this perfect picture? Who wouldn’t automatically snatch up the opportunity to live this beautiful life?
Well…..what if you knew that once you checked into this fabulous hotel, you could never….ever …..check out? You must stay…..and never leave….until your last day. Most individuals would not even consider this grand existence worth the price of parting with their freedom of choice.
Interestingly, this perfect hotel situation mirrors the life that many zoo animals are forced to experience. Every one of their needs is met and great care is taken to ensure they are comfortable and well-fed. In many zoos, they will even be able to enjoy the company of others of their same species as they reproduce and raise young together. Despite these favorable amenities, many animals demonstrate indications of stress in captivity. Often they engage in repetitive behaviors, a sign of “zoochosis” (For more info on this zoo animal malady, see: http://www.usask.ca/wcvm/herdmed/applied-ethology/behaviourproblems/zooanim.html).
In a classic study by Rodin and Langer (1977), the benefits of choice were explored in a population of nursing home residents. The first group of residents was given the choice to watch a weekly movie and asked if they would like a plant in their room to care for. The second group was told that they would get to watch the weekly movie, and they would have a plant in their rooms that the nurse would care for. Over time, the residents in the choice group remained healthier than the individuals in the non-choice group. Since then, study after study conducted in the U.S. and other western countries have turned up similar results—human and animal mental health states are positively influenced when they are able to exert control and experience freedom.
- Choice and control can mean more to an individual than the promise of experiencing ease and pleasure.
- Even animals appear to value the opportunity to exercise control over their lives.
- Reflect: How does the human “need for choice” influence (1) the ways we treat one another in general and (2) ways we interact with our clients as I/O professionals?
Rodin J. & Langer E.J. (1977) Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 897-902.