THE ART OF CHOOSING By Sheena Iyengar. Twelve, 2010. Hardcover. 352 pages. $25.99.

Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing is a welcome antidote to the trend of relentlessly quantitative research that few can make sense of.

For the past several decades, this has been a trend that privileges arcane theory over practical knowledge; indeed, some of the research is so specialized that it is incomprehensible outside of departmental silos.

Business schools have moved from academia’s stepchild status as glorified trade schools, teaching accountants about debits and credits, to professional schools on par with law schools and medical schools; indeed, B-school economists have been winning Nobel Prizes and faculty find themselves increasingly being sought out for lucrative speaking and consulting engagements. But, along the way, professors have ended up navel-gazing on so-called rigorous research that is rarely relevant to the every day needs of business professionals.

Refreshingly, Iyengar, a professor at the Columbia Business School, has written a book that is meaningful not only for business life, but for life itself. In accessible prose, she conveys her passion for the act (and, yes, the art) of choosing as something that all of us, from children to CEOs, do in a world of bewildering and often overwhelming abundance of options. Without regressing to a self-help style, Iyengar gently guides the reader with a light, airy touch that belies the robust research underlying her conclusions: “Every choice, whether life altering or not, has the potential to leave us anxious or regretful. However, the cumulative results of the diverse array of studies … tell us that we have the power to reduce the exhausting effects of choice…”

What is interesting about this conclusion is that it refutes the long-held belief in individualist cultures that more choice is better. Americans are so deeply socialized in the belief that to be modern is to be free to choose, that they sometimes recoil in horror when confronted by the prevalence of constrained choices, such as arranged marriages, in other countries. As Iyengar writes in personal prose, “If arranged marriage is not part of your script, my parents’ wedding may seem, at best, a curiosity, and at worst, an affront to their individual rights and dignity. In India, however, over 90 percent of marriages are arranged…. That being said, as collectivist cultures like India’s become more individualist, we’re seeing the practice of arranged marriage take on elements of individualism, so that today’s arranged marriage looks more like arranged courtship.”

One of the wonderful aspects of The Art of Choosing is how elegantly the author supports her concepts with research, blending the personal and the professional. Recounting work done at Stanford University with Mark Lepper, Iyengar makes the case that even in the micro-culture of an American classroom, there is significant difference in how Anglo American children and Asian American children value choice. As part of an experiment, Anglo and Asian elementary-school students were divided into three groups: (1) a control group that was told “Here are six piles of words you can choose from” and was allowed to select the colored marker of their preference; (2) a teacher-informed group that was told by the experimenter, “I would like you to work on the animal anagrams and write your answers with a blue marker;” and (3) a mother-informed group that was told, “Your mother wants you to work on the animal anagrams and write your answers with the blue marker.”

To ensure consistency, all three groups worked on the same puzzle types with the same colored marker. But the responses of the Anglo students and the Asian students was remarkably divergent. “Anglo American children did better and worked longer when they were able to exercise personal choice. The moment anyone else told them what to do, their performance and subsequent motivation dropped dramatically. By comparison, the Asian American children performed best and were most motivated when they believed their mothers had chosen for them.”

While this line of research may simplistically suggest that Americans thrive on choice (and Asians balance choice with duty), Iyengar’s now-classic “jam study” challenges long-held assumptions about the efficacy of unfettered choice. Because the methodological sophistication and industry importance of this research requires more space than available in this review, interested readers are encouraged to read the marvelously chapter titled “Lord of the Things” (more casual readers, please do an Internet search on “Iyengar jam study”). Readers will be rewarded with the following refrain: “More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfillment or happiness.” While this groundbreaking result of Iyengar’s work has resonated with marketers, consultants, mutual fund managers, and a host of other professionals whose success is predicated on consumer choice, each of us as a human being making our way through the adventure called life can benefit from internalizing Iyengar’s belief that “choosing helps us create our lives. We make choices and are in turn made by them.”

Your next visit to the bookstore or a scan of your eReader will have thousands of titles screaming, “Choose me! Choose me!” While you might not think that a stroll down the business aisle/category will alter your life in a substantial way, do consider that Sheena Iyengar has something special to offer: insight about how to live a life of meaningful choice. And know that this insight is not blind to the rigorous research that informs it. The wisdom is hard earned and merits a wide audience. Embodying Kurt Lewin’s aphorism that “There is nothing so practical as good theory,” The Art of Choosing just may nudge academia toward greater relevance.

For RCO’s colleagues at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business who appreciate the rigorous and relevant choice-making inherent in interpersonal dynamics.

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