How much choice do individuals have?
We’re all subject to chance for a good portion of our lives and to think that we can get away from that is delusional. But I do think that each of has the ability to choose in a micro way.
Choice in how we respond and react to situations?
Yes, perhaps we cannot be proactive, but we can indeed be responsive, we can veto things if we want to. We can say I disagree with that and I would rather do that. So in that sense I do think that we do have free will.
In your book The Art of Choosing, you wrote about the human tendency to try and find patterns everywhere: the Virgin Mary in a sandwich or a giraffe in a cloud. You said it was this very tendency that led people to misinterpret the patterns that led to the asset bubble burst and the housing market collapse. What lessons can we learn in terms of choice in the way we interpret patterns?
I think [it is true of] a large part of the financial crisis, the housing crisis, and just about every bubble that we’ve ever had. The first well-documented one was the tulip mania way back in the 1600s. In all of these bubbles, they’re all about people watching what everyone else was doing and figuring that they better jump on the bandwagon. But each of us as an individual has to ask “Yeah, everybody else is doing it but does this mean I should do it? Have I actually looked at the information and made an independent assessment of whether this makes sense?”
Is choice a foreign concept to Indian culture? Are we more oriented toward believing in destiny?
Probably. And there’s benefit to thinking in terms of destiny which I won’t deny. But when negative things happen in a society that believes in destiny, we might be less inclined to make change. I do think that while we can see our lives in terms of fate or in terms of chance—I’m lucky, or I didn’t get lucky—or in terms of choice, one of the things that we gain from seeing our lives in terms of choice, at least when misfortunes occur, is that it really is the only tool we have that enables us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow. It’s the only way we can create a better life for ourselves, a better life for people around us. I think that it’s something that, in a measured form, could benefit Indian society as a whole. I’m not saying that Indians suddenly need to wake up one morning and become like Americans. I’m saying that there’s a value to incorporating some of the values of choice into Indian culture.
Vedanta (a branch of Hindu philosophy) and karma theory (Hindu law of cause and effect) are integral to the way Indians perceive life.
It’s true. Amartya Sen [Nobel Laureate in economics] does talk about it as well, and he talks about how he rebels against the fact that we often associate choice as being a purely Western concept. My read on it is that choice is about your mindset and that, if you change your mindset you will be more at peace. Freedom is when you are free from fear, and you have to have that light in your mind. I agree that this [Hindu] concept is one that Americans would actually benefit from, because they think of personal happiness as being all externally driven by what goods you have or what people are doing for you around you, while Indians have this notion that it really has to come from within. I think it’s critical to creating a more wise and peace-loving society.
But this notion of choice is about action. What I am referring to is to think of choice as something you can do, an action that could change your life. For example, [people in developing nations have] the choice to educate their daughters so that they’re equipped to take care of their kids. I guess those are the kinds of situations where [believing in] choice would be useful.
Sujata Srinivasan is a Connecticut-based writer, reporter, editor and educator.