How to Make Smarter Choices

by Laura Rowley

Human beings crave control. Studies have found that when we enjoy the freedom and power to make our own choices, we're healthier and happier.

"The ability to choose well is arguably the most powerful tool for controlling our environment," writes Sheena Iyengar, author of the new book "The Art of Choosing." The problem is some people are sorely lacking that ability, especially when it comes to money. (See nearly everyone who chose an interest-only mortgage in the last few years.)

Iyengar, 40, a business professor at Columbia University, tackles the age-old dilemma of how to make smarter choices, and avoid the plethora of issues that trip us up. She established herself as the doyenne of choice psychology with a novel experiment in the mid-1990s, set in a California grocery. Her research team manned a tasting booth offering different jams near the store's entrance -- sometimes displaying 24 varieties, and other times, just six. While the table loaded with 24 options attracted more shoppers, only 3 percent actually purchased jam -- compared with 30 percent of those who visited the table with six varieties.

Bottom line: Too much choice can be paralyzing. Besieged by options and the cacophony of marketers, we shut down, and give as much attention to the investments in our 401(k) plans as we do to the kind of coffee we order at Starbucks.

Iyengar says the key to good choice is to focus on four or five critical domains, invest maximum energy and effort in making those choices, and then don't look back. For example, she describes a study of new college graduates. One group plunged into their job search, speaking with career counselors, parents and friends more often, taking advantage of expert rankings of companies, and applying for more jobs. A second group of their peers took a more casual approach.

After six months, people who had analyzed their decisions more thoroughly had been invited to more interviews, received more job offers, and ultimately landed positions with average annual salaries of $44,500. Their less thorough counterparts were earning an average of only $37,100.

The downside? The group that did more research second-guessed their decisions. They were "less certain that they had made the right choice and less satisfied with their jobs overall," Iyengar writes. "Though they had taken the initiative and weighed the pros and cons of many options, their final choices didn't lead to greater happiness."

Understanding the Tools

Still, that's short-term happiness versus long-term, and surely starting one's career with a 20 percent boost in income will pay off handsomely in the long-term. (In any case, the extra income will give you more options.)

"Finding the right job, making sure you have enough to live and saving for retirement -- for most people those decisions ought to be high up there in things pay attention to," says Iyengar. "For the things that you really care about, you basically have three tools in helping make that choice, and you need to use all three."

First, gut instinct -- it will tell you what you're feeling at the moment, but it's unreliable. "It doesn't tell you whether what you think you're feeling is what you're really feeling," Iyengar says.

For example, the brain can confuse fear with lust. Researchers did an experiment in which male sightseers crossing two bridges in British Columbia -- one wide and sturdy, the other a rickety, swaying structure. The sightseers were stopped in the middle by an attractive female interviewer. She asked if they would take part in a study about the natural scenery's effect on creativity by writing a short story. She then offered her phone number in case participants wanted to "talk further about the purpose of the study."

Half of those crossing the scarier bridge called back, versus an eighth of those on the sturdy bridge. (Callback rates were equally low when the study was repeated with a male interviewer.)

Second, do a pro-and-con analysis -- something Benjamin Franklin recommended to a friend: "I have found great advantage from this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudent algebra," he wrote. This sort of examination will emphasize the more quantitative measures in a decision, Iyengar notes.

The third step in decision-making is looking at what has made other people happy. "This is one people refuse to use, particularly in American individualist culture," says Iyengar, who was born in Canada of Indian parents. People assume their personality and situation are utterly unique, and they ignore the guidance of other people's experiences -- particularly those who are older.

"Whatever is making them happy now, there's a good probability that's what's going to make you happy 10 years from now," she notes. Observation, conversation and seeking advice are all tools to take seriously in making big decisions.

Time-Tested Advice

After you decide, invest in the choice. "I was born blind; I didn't know what choices I would have," says Iyengar, who was diagnosed with the genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa in childhood and lost her sight completely by high school.

"Some people said to become a musician or a lawyer -- apparently those are popular careers for blind people, but I didn't have the talent for either. I ran an experiment when I was an undergrad and it seemed interesting. Little by little I did more and more, and invested in doing good experiments. The goal was to make sure I did experiments that people would find helpful or useful in some way."

Just as artists or musicians create within the boundaries of forms and rules, people should take a structured approach to choosing, and then "hold fast," Iyengar writes. But what should lie at the heart of choice? What should motivate our best decisions?

"I think for the things that really matter to you it should be quality," says Iyengar. "Do the best at that thing, make it effortful, put in the hard work."

It's advice that might have come from Aristotle, I suggest, who wrote that all beings have a telos -- a noble end or goal to which they must give expression. Happiness -- or more accurately, flourishing -- is giving highest expression to our nature and calling -- pursuing our telos with excellence.

"I'm a big admirer of Aristotle," Iyengar says.


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