A review in the New York Times on Sheena Iyengar’s book The Art of Choosing caught my attention. The author, a psychologist by profession, has conducted a number of experiments over the years. She is most famous for the jam experiment; the one that showed people are more likely to be interested in more options but less likely to make a decision when faced with more options. The conclusion: less is more, well sometimes.

What she also points out in the book, and what I find more interesting, is the correlation between culture and the concept of choice. For example, in a study that had Japanese and American students take note of all the choices they made throughout the day. The Americans included things like brushing teeth among their choices. Those from Japan didn’t see that as a choice. 

To further the idea, Iyengar did a study on Anglo American children in the US and children with Chinese or Japanese parents who spoke the native language at home. When asked to do something that came across as a request from the child’s parent the Anglo American children were less inclined to do it and didn’t work as vigorously. The children of immigrants worked the hardest when the request came from a parent.

These findings are intriguing. Americans see their every action as a choice and become immediately defensive when it seems like they are losing their ability to chose by being asked to complete something by an authority figure. The Chinese and Japanese people studied, on the other hand, didn’t consider every action a choice and were not put out when they were asked to do something by a parent.

What is it then about the American culture that has its people longing for the ability to choose in every aspect of their lives? And is having a plethora of options in front of them really helping? As far as the jam experiment goes, more options didn’t help them make a purchasing decision. In fact when given more options (24 jam flavors), only 3% of those surveyed made a purchase. With less options (6 jam flavors) 30% decided to purchase the jam.

What is it in the Chinese and Japanese cultures that have the children acting out of a sense of duty, whether it is duty toward a parent or duty to perform a certain socially-mandated task, like brushing their teeth in the morning?

Do we have too many options in front of us? Is it clouding our ability to make good judgments, or any judgment at all?

I’m off to borrow this book from the library. The studies in it sound fascinating.


Katie Hinderer

Katie Hinderer is a freelance writer and social media enthusiast. She holds a degree in Journalism from Marquette University. Over the years she has transitioned from traditional publishing...