#245 – The Art of Choosing with Sheena Iyengar

photo of Sheena Iyengar


Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D. is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology, and the Research Director at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business. Sheena’s primary research interest is how people perceive and respond to choice, and for her research on this topic she has been the recipient of numerous honors, including the prestigious Best Dissertation Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in 1998 and the Presidential Early Career Award in 2002. She is currently recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on choice. Her work is regularly cited in the popular press, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Time magazines, the BBC and National Public Radio, as well as in bestselling books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. She has recently written her first book, The Art of Choosing, which explores the mysteries of choice in everyday life.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.



  1. John Knight
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I found the concepts you two were discussing on cultural assumptions of so called ‘universal truths’ particularly fascinating, as well the persona-based ideals of presenting a ‘package’ to the outside world.

    I met a fellow Aussie talking about the cultural differences between here and the US, and something that alarmed him was the way Americans tend to conform to the stereotypes or cliches they’ve been given or chosen, culturally.

    He was saying that over here, you can look at someone and guess at their ethnicity, nationality, and job – for instance, an Italian who’s a mechanic – and find they’re actually a Ukrainian plumber who’s working at a Masters degree in biochemistry (ie. you’re usually way off the mark in guessing).

    The contrast he found in America is that people seem to feel the need to outwardly display certain characteristics that identify you as belong to a certain culture, religion, etc. Sheena’s comments about a seeming need to look inside to decide what choices you should make to present a package that is recognisable to the outside world really hit home on that point.

    But as a very optimistic counterpoint, American films such as Fight Club (which has a very strong psychology running through it) seem intent on breaking such investment in the persona. If you’ll indulge some [censored] Tyler Durden quoting:

    “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f*****g khakis….”

    “F*** off with your sofa units and string green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may. ”

    I find that kind of reverse ideal very promising, when such a message comes from an American psyche (and that second quote particularly poignant in relation to choice).

  2. Jimmy
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    America really seems to be the punching bag of the world these days. I’m an American that has lived nearly a decade in Australia, and never ceased to be amazed by how many Aussies (many who never been to the States) enjoy sharing with me the many ways in which American culture is flawed. As a dual-national I don’t take this personally, but it really is quite the curiosity.

  3. John Knight
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I hope my comments didn’t seem anti-American in anyway – believe me, I have just as many issues with Australian thinking (more than I could name), and I think there are a great number of psychological ideals Australians can learn from their American cousins.

    But even Jung himself noted that America has a very complex psychology, and the investment in persona and its entanglement with wealth can reach some very strange levels when a country has such unmatched volumes of film and advertising, amongst other forms of media. American values over the last century have been very much geared around rapid progress, and that can’t help but have side effects – like any other cultural momentum.

    I only mentioned it because it seemed to resonate with something Sheena said (and I hope it didn’t sound petty and antagonistic). But to counter that, one of my all time favourite movies, and *American* at that, tries to tear down some of these false ideals and find a cultural truth that’s wonderful.

    Yes, America does get treated as a punching bag – and often unfairly so – but look at any culture and you can find something flawed. Still, widen your gaze, and every culture has something amazing that you can make your own.

    In the field of psychology we really need to be able to temporarily detach from nationalities for a few moments, and look at each national psyche objectively. Find the good, find the bad, and make something new.

  4. Ronnie
    Posted April 16, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed the discussion on religion and optimism at the start. Reminded me of the studies that identify the authoritarian personality. I have family who fit this model perfectly and they are funamentalist in their religious beliefs as well as far right politically. They have had hard lives, yet remain positive. Conversely, those of us who are liberal do seem much less so. They are happier within a structured understanable world and respect their selected authority figures whom they forgive almost any sin. That type of life makes me feel squeezed in my very soul and my respect for authorities is highly dependent upon their behaviors.

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