This year I’m doing a project where I read one nonfiction book per month, which is more nonfiction than I normally read. It’s been interesting to read some nonfiction books that have been lingering unread on my shelves for ages, and also interesting to explore some types of nonfiction that I don’t normally pick up. The Art of Choosing is the kind of pop science book I rarely read, and I’m not sure why. Once I got past the first chapter (which has some things in it about experiments on animals that I found distressing), I enjoyed this book a bunch, and had fun telling my boyfriend about all the psych studies I was learning about.

Basically, this book is an exploration of how people make choices, how choice-making sometimes causes us problems, and how we might approach choice-making in ways that might actually increase our happiness. Iyengar partly talks about making the kinds of choices we’re used to thinking about as choices—what to have for dinner, career choices, relationship choices—but also talks about the choices we make in the narratives we construct about our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, the way we emphasize our own agency, or don’t. And she talks about the larger cultural contexts of choice-making—how different cultural backgrounds shape different attitudes towards choice, both in terms of what level of choice-making is deemed appropriate/optimal, and in terms of what people even see as choices. (There’s a great part when she talks about having students at the same school, from two different countries/cultures, write down every choice they made the day before. One group of students includes things like brushing their teeth or snoozing/not snoozing the alarm as choices; the other group doesn’t list that kind of thing.)

I like how Iyengar talks about choice and our sense of self/identity: she talks about how there’s a common conception of identity that goes like this: “Beneath the many layers of shoulds and shouldn’ts that cover us, there lies a constant, single, true self that is just waiting to be discovered” (75). But is that necessarily true/is it necessarily helpful to frame it like that? Could we not “acknowledge that our identity itself is malleable but no less authentic for it”(101)? I like how she talks about seeing “identity as a dynamic process rather than a static object” and “finding ourselves in the evolution of choosing, not merely in the results of choice,” and seeing choice itself as “an ongoing, liberating act of creation” (110).

Of course, choice is not always great: choosing can be overwhelming, especially when there are a lot of options and we aren’t experts/don’t necessarily understand all of the differences between them. Iyengar offers some practical advice for dealing with choice overload/decision fatigue: if you’re making a lot of choices at once, start with the easy ones and work up to the harder ones; classify options to make choosing easier; consult experts or crowdsource opinions when appropriate. She also talks about cognitive biases that can affect our choices, and how to avoid being blindsided by them.

Minor quibbles: when reading about various psych studies, I sometimes found myself thinking about the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology—though I realize there are different perspectives on that (1, 2). And when reading about the ways that our choices can be influenced by advertising/priming, I found myself feeling like Iyengar was being too uncritical of consumerism. (Like: she suggests we shouldn’t worry too much/”would serve ourselves better by separating the influences that conflict with our values from the influences that are basically harmless” (175) — but I don’t know, I’d rather opt out of consumerism/advertising a bit/I don’t think it is basically harmless.) Still: this was an interesting read/maybe I should read more pop science!

One Response to “The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar”

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End Says:

    Oh God I fret about the reproducibility crisis all the time. Oh it’s so terrible. That said I do still enjoy pop science books!! I was going to recommend Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, but it’s absolutely GIANT and took me forever to get through. I do still recommend it! It’s just giant and took me forever to get through. :P

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