News & Politics

Decisions, Decisions: The Culture and Psychology of Choice

In a country as diverse as America, does choice mean the same thing for everyone? A chat with Sheena Iyengar, author of the book <i>The Art of Choosing</i>.

Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” But in America we might say instead, “I choose, therefore I am.” The holidays are all about choosing the right present. From a sandwich to Medicare Part D, we are forever trying to choose the right option. But in a country as diverse as America, does choice mean the same thing for everyone? Do Asian Americans choose the same way as Caucasians? Sheena Iyengar is a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of the book The Art of Choosing. She spoke to Sandip Roy on the radio program New America Now.

You did an experiment in an elementary school in San Francisco of Asian-American children and Anglo-American children. What was the impetus of the study?

When I was Ph D student, I was studying Japanese. So I went to Japan for a couple of years. A strange thing happened to me on my first night. When I ordered this cup of green tea, the waiter brought it over and I asked for some sugar. The waiter said politely we don’t put sugar in our green tea. I said, “I understand in Japan you are not supposed to put sugar in your green tea. But I am an American—could you forgive me and let me have some?” The waiter hesitated and I insisted. Then the waiter went and talked to the manager. Finally the manager comes and says “Sorry, we don’t have sugar.” I said OK, I’ll order a cup of coffee.

And I get the cup of coffee and on the saucer are sitting two packets of sugar! At first I am outraged. He is violating my rights as a customer. But in Japan they were protecting me from committing the ultimate faux pas— drinking my tea incorrectly. That was my way of understanding that choice has very different scripts in different cultures.

In your experiment you divided the kids into three groups. The first group is given the freedom to choose their puzzle and the color of their marker. The second group is shown all the puzzles and markers but told, “You need to work on the animal puzzle but use the blue marker.” And the third group is told, “We asked your mothers earlier, and your mothers want you to work on the animal puzzle and the blue marker.” What did you find?

For the American kids, they performed the best when they got to choose. Some of these kids were outraged when they were told that we asked their mothers. By contrast, the Asian kids performed best when it was for their mother, next when they chose for themselves and just as badly when [the instructions came from] the experimenter who they had never met. Here again, for the American, the choice was all about who I am and what I want and nobody else can answer that question for me. For Asians, having their mothers choose for them was really comforting. It built confidence that the correct choice was made.

If the Asian kids were more “mommy” and the American kids were more “me,” where do other groups like blacks and Latinos fall in the mommy-me spectrum?

We know from other studies that Latinos are in between Asians and Americans in that they do value relationships, but not as strongly as Asians. African Americans, interestingly enough, are very similar to Anglo Americans, at least in their desire for choice and their reactions to choice.

Then you did an experiment with American and Japanese students in Kyoto. Did changing the location and age change how choice was regarded?

We asked people to jot down all the choices they made today. If you look at Japanese and American students who had the same exact classes, the Americans list four times more choice in a day than the Japanese. So the Americans think the fact that they woke up when the alarm clock went off is a choice, brushing their teeth is a choice. For the Japanese, [those actions are] a script that they have to follow. The bar is much higher. [Choice] has to be what I wear to a party, to some extent whom they marry.

It’s not just about how choice is regarded from culture to culture—does culture affect what we regard as choice in the first place?

Absolutely. I give you a set of 10 sodas. Do you see that as one choice or 10 choices? That varies tremendously as a function of your culture. Asians wouldn’t see that as a choice, because they are wondering what is the host expecting me to choose. Americans see that as 10 choices. Members of ex-communist countries see that as one choice: soda. They see the differences between the brands as utterly meaningless.

Your parents were second cousins. You and your sister are both blind from a genetic condition. Did that make your parents regret the choice of an arranged marriage between cousins?

I don’t think so. I think they just saw that as their fate. My mom always said, “What did I do in my last life? What did your father do in his last life? Something must have gone wrong.” I don’t think she ever pinned the blame on the choice of the spouse.

Sandip Roy (sandip@pacificnews.org) is host of "Upfront," the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.