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The Art of Choosing

ImageI recently attended a talk on choice given by Professor Sheena Iyengar, the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School and the Director of the Global Leadership Matrix initiative. Choice is a very powerful tool in our lives as it helps us get from here to the future, but sometimes it is too much.  In order to get the most from choice, we must be choosy about choosing.  “In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different.  The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options” according to Prof. Iyengar.

The challenge is that we are presented with an explosion of choices. Prof. Iyengar’s Columbia Business School team ran a test at a retail store. Two jams displays were set up next to each other, one with 24 varieties of jams and the other with only six. More people stopped at the table with 24 jams, but only 3% bought something, while despite getting less foot traffic, 30% of the people who stopped at the table with six jams bought something. So while people were more attracted to greater choice, they preferred buying when they were presented fewer options. Are our eyes are too big for our minds? How many choices can we really handle? Prof Iyengar numerous studies has led her to assert that the magical number is in fact seven (+ or – 2).  So beyond seven choices, one gets confused. So choice is essentially about comparing bundles of info– if we are faced with too many, we procrastinate, we make inconsistent choices, and we ultimately become less satisfied.

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