The Art Of Choosing

Link: This review appears on Amazon-UK here. And on Amazon-US here.

With a researcher’s and practitioner’s interest in decision-making, I did not have to ponder over the choice to buy this book. Nor did I struggle with reading its 268 pages (not including acknowledgment and references) in just over 4 hours. Professor Sheena Iyengar has written an engaging treatise on what choice means to human beings, how we make choices in the face of sometimes confounding contradictions and uncertainties, and how the sheer option and the act of choosing can affect our well-being. The illustrative examples and stories cover a wide range – from the trivial, such as picking between two colours of nail polish, to the serious life-and-death choice of whether to keep a sick neo-nate on life support or to turn it off.

Using many such stories from research, Professor Iyengar shows how the desire for choice, as a way to exercise control, is universal. She demonstrates how our “framing” of choices depends upon the stories we have been told, and our beliefs that may arise from our culture, religion, ethnicity etc. A freedom to choose may be a “freedom to” or “freedom from”, as Erich Fromm has written so how in an increasingly globalised world do we reconcile all these differences in perspective? Professor Iyengar proposes a sort of “metaphorical multilingualism”, using the example of how she herself uses the language of sighted people although she is functionally blind.

Professor Iyengar takes us on a fascinating exploration of American history to show how choice relates to identity, and then shows yet how many more people are alike than not although they prefer to think otherwise. Such contradictions contained within us in Walt Whitmanesque multitudes, she argues that we constantly rearrange our identities to appear independent-thinking, identity being a dynamic process not a static object. We adjust our behaviours and lives to reinforce that identity seeking, she writes, common ground without being copycats. If you pick only one chapter to read from this book, I would recommend Chapter 3.

Further we learn how choices are not just about possibility, but also responsibility and consequences, foreseeable or otherwise. Professor Iyengar discusses our automatic (subconscious) and our reflective (conscious) brain, and how trouble arises when the two are in disagreement. What follows is a thought-provoking discourse on how we use heuristics and employ our preferences and biases, sometimes using them to colour our search for information, which ends with a soft suggestion that sometimes it may be better to throw in our lot with others or their experience.

Is there such a thing as too much choice? Research suggests that to be the case. Choice, as we see, is not an unconditional good. There are limits to human cognition and we may need to cultivate expertise to deal with the surfeit on offer. And then there are complex choices, such as in medically serious situations, which require us to put a “value” on things which have “worth” for us, exacting a mental cost which we are unable to assess fully at the time of making the choice. Choice, Professor Iyengar concludes, is an art with its uncertainties and contradictions, and in its mystery lies its puissance: a conclusion most readers of this book may choose to agree with.

It was difficult for me to give the book 4 stars instead of 5. Here is why I struggled. While the stories are fascinating, some sections meander and one can lose the thread pretty quickly. Having read the book, I can empathise with how difficult the editorial choices might have been: which of the research references to keep, and which to edit away. It was a choice and the editor chose to keep them all in. A research described in Chapter 3 discusses using a scale where research subjects had to determine if something was “moderately unique” or “very unique”. This was mildly irritating. These phrases may be colloquial usage but that does not make them correct.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A thought-provoking book which most will benefit from reading. However as Professor Iyengar warns, introspection or self-examination is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it is unlikely to be a comforting read for all. It does however offer several points of departure for thinking about things around us. From brand marketing to politics, to how various nations are dealing with the recession.

Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.