Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Dissecting culture's role in decision-making

Choosing among the dozens of brands in the bread, peanut butter and jam aisle, February 2010
Choosing among the dozens of brands in the bread, peanut butter and jam aisle, February 2010
Photo by Anthony Albright/Flickr (Creative Commons)

On the heels of weeks of Christmas shopping in stores filled with far too many perplexing choices, New American Media published a great Q&A this weekend with Columbia University business professor Sheena Iyengar, author of the book "The Art of Choosing."

Iyengar, who was raised as a Sikh, spoke with Sandip Roy on the program New America Now. She discussed how one's cultural background plays a bigger than expected role in the way decisions are made. An excerpt from the interview:

It’s not just about how choice is regarded from culture to culture—does culture affect what we regard as choice in the first place?

Absolutely. I give you a set of 10 sodas. Do you see that as one choice or 10 choices? That varies tremendously as a function of your culture. Asians wouldn’t see that as a choice, because they are wondering what is the host expecting me to choose. Americans see that as 10 choices. Members of ex-communist countries see that as one choice: soda. They see the differences between the brands as utterly meaningless.

Among other things, Iyengar dissects the way in which Indian women choose saris (often shopping in a group, which makes deciding easier) and why having dozens of flavors to choose from at Baskin-Robbins isn't all it's cracked up to be (half of Americans prefer plain vanilla, strawberry or chocolate).

She also weighs in on her unique experiences with choice, including how her blindness in a way has made it easier to make some decisions, and on her choice of mate ("...I did consciously choose to marry an Indian. That was a conscious choice because I felt that if I married an American, my entire life would continue to be two cultures in conflict all the time.").

It's a fascinating read.