Friday, August 13, 2010

The Art of Choosing

I am currently reading this book by Sheena Iyengar. This talk prompted the purchase and since it is relatively new, I could not buy it second hand - an obsession I have acquired recently. I decided to write a review before I finish it because these days, my creative writing is at the mercy of the little breaks between my experiments and thesis writing. The reading actually takes place on the train and half an hour before I go to bed.
This book is a collection of psychological experiments and their balanced interpretation on how human beings or even laboratory animals choose their circumstances. Sheena did her PhD in social psychology from Stanford University. Her thesis titled 'Choice and its Discontents' won the Best Dissertation Award from the Society of Social Experimental Psychology in 1998. However, more than the award and the topic of study, what inspires me the most about her is that she has achieved this in spite of suffering from a rare form of visual impairment called 'retinitis pigmentosa'. In this book, she clearly mentions why she was driven to get a PhD in choice. Coming from a family of conservative Sikh immigrants, she had a limited choice of aspirations at home. However, she was meant to live an inevitable double life in the U.S., where free choice is at the center of the American Dream. One more constraint was added when at the tender age of thirteen she lost almost ninety percent of her vision, being able to perceive only the difference between darkness and light. In this book, she does full justice to that ability.
She has included cross-cultural experiments between societies that are rated highly individualistic and highly collective. In countries like China, India and Japan individual decisions are often influenced by a 'greater good' or a 'collective motive'. She explains this beautifully by using the rationale behind an Indian arranged marriage, which seems ridiculous in a Western society. On the other hand, in a Western, or individualistic society, kids are taught to exercise their own choice as soon as they start talking. In today's highly globalized world, where cultures are mixing, these basic differences in attitudes pose a lot of challenges in work places.
Rather than taking a 'black and white' approach to how one should choose, this book takes a balanced empirical stand on the exercise of choice across the world. I find it quite relevant to today's society that is being driven by instant gratification and very powerful, yet inadequately used technology. How we choose to utilize the technological power we are being given can reshape the new world. However, it is equally possible that we just drown ourselves into an incoherent noise.
She gives a voice to many thoughts that I used to have in my mind as an immigrant living in a highly individualistic society (Geert Hofstede ranks Australia at 90/100 in his comprehensive ranking for individualistic nations; India being 50/100). Even though I realize the futility of pleasing people by my individual decisions, I cannot bring myself to program my thoughts accordingly. I can process my thoughts to be more individualistic later, but I cannot, naturally, think that I have no constraints in choosing my 'destiny'. This schism sets me apart from my Western friends to a certain degree that is perhaps only obvious to me. Although, the idea of 'me first' sounds very appealing in theory, I am also equally intrigued by the actions of the 'passive (s)heroes' I have seen growing up. Even though having more money, more space and more time to think entirely for yourself is the mantra of self-development, the character that is built in close knit families, where people have little choice as to what will happen to them adds another important dimension to the human mind.
Hence when I see people who, quite reasonably, equate 'collective societies' to 'primitive societies', I sense that they are victims of a situation where they have studied only one side carefully. This book, brings together an in depth analysis of both sides. That is why, I had to write a review even before I finished it. :)


शिरीष said...

Hi Sai
The review prompts me to read this book

Random Thoughts said...

Sounds like a good read. Does she elaborate on how to make a choice irrespective of the kind of society you grew up in?