Believe it or not, most of us make more than 35,000 of these decisions every single day. How do we ensure we’re making the best ones?

Columbia Business School Professor Sheena Iyengar is an expert in choice. “Choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents,” says Iyengar, “When it is thrust upon those who are insufficiently prepared for it.” After over two decades of research, Iyengar published her studies in a book The Art of Choosing, which explores how choice works and what it means in our daily lives.

Professor Iyengar sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about her work and how all of us can maximize our decisions to lead happier lives.

Sheena Iyengar

What was the impetus for your book?

I’ve been studying choice for a long time. I suppose I first started when I was an undergrad. I thought I was going to prove to the world that religion was a terrible thing and it made everybody depressed because I had come from a very religious family. That was actually my first study. I looked at the effects of religion on people’s happiness, and I found that contrary to all my expectations, the more religious people were, the happier they were. And this was true even as religion took away their choices.

At the time, I didn’t realize that this would end up being my first study on choice, but later when I got to graduate school, I noticed that I was immediately drawn to questions around choice. I got interested in how people from different cultures choose and how they think about choice. I asked myself, what are the effects of giving people more choice or less choice? Do they actually need more structure or less structure? What motivates people about choice?

By the time I wrote my book, I had been studying choice in different ways for about 20 years. The book really aims to examine three main questions. First of all, why do we want choice? (It’s a very powerful desire.) Second, what are the things that affect how and what we choose? And third, what are some things we can do to get more from choice? Choice is a tool and like any tool, if you learn you use it, you can use it to create some really wonderful opportunities for yourself. But it also has its limitations, and to get the most from it, you kind of have to understand both.

How much control do we have over what we choose? Is our desire to have more choices innate or culturally dictated?

We have an innate desire to be in control, and that’s something that we share with animals. The number of choices we have, however, doesn’t appear to be innate. You see both animals and humans get confused as the number of options—whether it’s food choices or mate choices—goes up.

Sheena Iyengar

Are the choices we make ever against our best interests?

There are times that we make choices that go against our best self-interests. In the past, economists always argued that we were all rational choosers, and yet you find so many times, we make choices that go against what we might think of as our self-interest. It’s hard to know, however, if people even know what’s in their best self-interest or also if self interest is not the only thing that’s driving their choices.

For example, we all know that it’s good not to eat candy or eat cake, but we do it because there are other things that affect our interest in cake and candy. We all know that we should save more for our futures or floss our teeth, but yet we don’t. It’s hard to say that people don’t choose in line with their self-interest because you don’t know what other factors might be driving their choices. 

I think the right answer is that lots of things affect what we choose and the assumption that we would always choose what’s in line with some notion of rational choice was probably erroneous.

What are the strategies we can use to make sure we’re balancing the need for choice and the paralysis of too much choice?

It’s hard—how do we live in this world with lots and lots of choices? If you think about it, from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die, you’re making choices at all times. Most of the decisions you make are made unconsciously.

Does it make sense to become aware of every single choice we make? Probably not, that’s debilitating. Does it make sense for us to exercise free will and not just act on autopilot? Absolutely.

What I say is that in this day and age where we do have a lot of choices that are coming at us at all times—many of which are irrelevant or unnecessary for any given individual—the most important choice you can make for yourself is figuring out what you care about. It’s only the stuff that you care about where you should really exert the energy to be conscious about it. Ultimately, you have to tell yourself that the opportunity you have to exercise free will is by asking, “What do I care about?” It’s important to remember that you can always exercise veto power.

Sheena Iyengar

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