The Art of Choosing 

By: Sheena Iynengar



We are faced with choices almost every minute of every day. To open a document to take notes on this book, I had to choose whether or not I wanted to use a template. A few seconds ago you made the choice to watch or read this book summary. Some choices you’ll make are mundane, like the ones I just described. Some of the choices you’ll make are literally the difference between life and death, and Steven Callahan did when he found himself alone on a raft in the ocean - for 76 long and terrifying days, he made the choice to live rather than give up and die.

Sheena Iynengar takes us on a fascinating journey about how we can learn to make better choices. We’ll explore the assumptions we make about choice, and how it differs depending on the culture and the context the choice is made in. Buckle your seatbelts and get ready for a roller-coaster ride through the fascinating world of choice.

What is choice?

This seems like a question that should be answered in an undergraduate philosophy class at a liberal arts college. But it is critical to examine what we believe choice means before we can get down to the business of making better ones.

Most western cultures have grown up with the belief that choice is good. How else do you explain the thousands of different choices available to us at the grocery store alone? However, choice isn’t always a good thing. In fact, there are some people in the world who believe that more choice is a negative thing.

In a fascinating study, Asian American and Anglo American children were given a set of schoolwork tasks to do. The study concluded that the Asian American children did much better when they believed they were doing what their mothers had picked out for them to do, and the Anglo-American children did much better on tasks where they felt they had the power to choose themselves.

In a similar study, a group of Asian and American students were asked to list what choices they make during a typical day. The American students listed 50% more choices, including things like brushing their teeth and putting the alarm clock on snooze as choices.

What does this say about choice? How you see the world greatly determines how your story plays out. This might seem like a small matter, but in reality it can make all the difference. For instance, how many times have you heard somebody complain that they were “stuck in a terrible job”? That person is likely to stay in that job (or a similar one) for the rest of their life, living for the weekend until they are six feet under ground. Another person might look at that situation and say “I don’t like my job right now, but today I’m going to look for another one”.

How do we make choices?

So, now you are aware that we choose what we view as our choices, let’s move on to how we make those choices. The first thing to understand is that we have two systems available to us to make choices. The first one is the automatic system, which operates effortlessly and subconsciously. Because it never turns off and runs off of emotion, it’s always there influencing our decisions.

It’s the system that tells us that an approaching lion might be hazardous to our health, and it’s also the system that tells us that the can of Coca Cola on the table would taste really good right about now. The second system is our reflective system, which we need to consciously tap into. It’s the system that brings logic and reason into our lives.

When these two systems come up with the same answer, life is good. In the case of the approaching lion, it comes up with the same answer - WE NEED TO GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE! However, with the Coca Cola (if you happen to like it), you’ll probably have a conflict to resolve. On the one hand, they will taste great and probably quench my thirst immediately. However, your reflective system will tell you that it’s filled with empty calories, you’ll have a sugar crash in about 30 minutes from now, and it will also rot your teeth and give you cavities.

In an incredible study, children who are able to listen to their reflective system and exhibit self control have stronger relationships as adults, better coping skills, and even scored an average of 200 points better on their SATs. As Iyengar puts it, “they seemed to be healthier, wealthier, and wiser”.

So, when you are making choices, remember to tap into the reflective part of your brain to make sure you aren’t doing something that you’ll later regret. Just be careful, because it has also been proven that you (and I) are horrible judges of what will make us happy in the future. Remember to ask yourself whether or not the choice your reflective system is telling you to make will actually make you happy.

The 4 missteps we all make

Our choices are so numerous, that it would be easy to get overwhelmed by it. In response to that, we develop shortcuts for making some decisions. Some people would call them rules of thumb, people with more degrees than you and I would call thumb heuristics. There are 4 common ways in which we create these shortcuts for ourselves. Unfortunately, they can often lead us astray, so learn these and then be aware of them when you are making decisions.

The first shortcut is that of “availability”.
The information that is stored in our brain has an enormous effect on how we make choices. And the information that gets stored in our brains the most, is the information that is filled with emotion and excites our senses. You’ve probably heard this before. But think about it this way: if the stuff that gets us excited and emotional is the the only stuff that’s “available”, there’s a whole slew of other information that we decide not to store in our memory.

Which means that our memory is a skewed version of reality. For example, pretend that you want to remember your colleague’s favourite shirt colour so you can buy them an appropriate gift. If they wore a neon green shirt a few times, that might be the only information stored in your memory, and so that’s how you’ll make your choice.

The second thing to be aware of is that we are extremely influenced by the way information is framed.
Consider the way that Roberto Goizeuta, the CEO of Coca-Cola in the 1980’s, framed a challenge to his employees. The executive team was pretty proud of the fact that they owned 45% of the soft drink market. That’s pretty impressive, right? That was until Roberto gently pointed out that while they owned 45% of the soft drink market, they only owned about 2% of the entire liquid market.

With one simple twist of language, he turned a group that was pretty happy and complacent into a hungry team that needed to think creatively about how they could grow their measly 2% market share. Today, we drink water, fruit drinks, sport drinks and energy drinks from this same company. I guess it worked. You can use this framing device to your advantage, but also be aware of when it’s being used on you.

Third, we are wired to make connections between things.
Some of the greatest inventions of all time were created this way. Take a phone and an mp3 player and put them together - boom - you’ve got yourself an iPhone. Take the Internet and the Dewey Decimal system and put them together - boom - you’ve got Google. Take peanut butter and chocolate...we could go on. And this shortcut works incredibly well in the creative process. But in other areas, it can be a detriment to your success.

Like when Americans started to look at rising real estate prices over a ten year period, and made the connection that those prices would continue to rise well into the future, regardless of the evidence that is wasn’t sustainable. So, check in and make sure you are not basing your most important choices on assumptions that go unchecked.

Lastly, we also take the shortcut of seeking out information that supports a point of view that we’ve already decided on, and we will also vigorously defend any beliefs we have in the same way.
For instance, Philip Tetlock showed that political authorities fall prey to this when predicting the outcome of global political events. He found that they did no better at predicting them than if they had flipped a coin. Remember, these are people who get paid for a living to make predictions! Why did they perform so poorly?

Because they were willing to accept information that confirmed the opinions that they had already formed. Also, we all do it because it literally feels better to justify decisions we have made than to challenge them. While we can’t afford to question every single decision we’ve ever made, for the important ones you should check in and make sure you aren’t just collecting information to support your cause.

6 ways to make better choices

So now you have all the bad news, let’s talk about how you combat these things and make better choices for yourself.

First, you can make better choices by becoming an expert in a subject.
Do you want to become an expert in making financial decisions? Become an expert financial advisor. However, as much as we’d like to become experts about every decision we need to make during the course of our lifetime, the reality is that we can’t. So, we need some other ways to make choices in areas that we are not experts in.

Second, we can take advantage of the expertise of others.
This one should be obvious, but know that for just about anything you need to make a decision on, somewhere out there is a person who can guide you through the process of making a great decision in that area. The key here is to get over the fact that you don’t need to have all the answers yourself, as we all like to think we do from time to time.

Third, there are times when it might make sense to turn choice into a collaborative activity.
For instance, you might convene a group in your company to make a decision on the direction of a certain project. Hearing and interacting with many viewpoints will ultimately help you make a better decision.

Fourth, you can turn to the wisdom of the crowds.
The Zagat restaurant guide and Amazon product rankings are a great example of this. It is much easier to make a choice when you know how the majority of people feel about a product or a service. Keep in mind that it doesn’t mean you have to make the same choices as the market as a whole - perhaps you enjoy movies that the market usually scores very low. There are plenty of ways you can take advantage of the wisdom (or stupidity in some cases) of crowd.

Fifth, you can categorise options so that instead of 100 choices, you narrow it down to 5.
An obvious example is a department store dividing it’s goods into departments so that the number of choices is significantly narrowed down depending on what you are looking for. On the Internet, this is most often seen through the use of keywords and “tags” that allow you to filter through content on the web, and allows you to ignore irrelevant options.

Lastly, and most often ignored, is the opportunity to learn from ourselves.

Reflecting on how we’ve made our past decisions, and the biases we may have used to make them, is a key in determining how to approach future decisions.


We cannot avoid choice, even if we wanted to. We make hundreds of choices a day, and they literally shape the outcome of our life. If you want a handbook on how they are made, and how you can make them better, this book is for you.