The Art of Choosing


By Sheena Iyengar

Read by Orlagh Cassidy

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Every day we make choices. Coke or Pepsi? Save or spend? Stay or go?

Whether mundane or life-altering, these choices define us and shape our lives. Sheena Iyengar asks the difficult questions about how and why we choose: Is the desire for choice innate or bound by culture? Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests? How much control do we really have over what we choose? Sheena Iyengar’s award-winning research reveals that the answers are surprising and profound. In our world of shifting political and cultural forces, technological revolution, and interconnected commerce, our decisions have far-reaching consequences. Use The Art of Choosing as your companion and guide for the many challenges ahead.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


The Call of the Wild


What would you do? If you were stranded at sea in a small inflatable raft, or stuck in the mountains with a broken leg, or just generally up the proverbial creek without a paddle, what do you suppose you would do? How long, say, would you swim before letting yourself drown? How long could you hold out hope? We ask these questions—over dinner, at parties, on lazy Sunday afternoons—not because we're looking for survival tips but because we're fascinated by our limits and our ability to cope with the kinds of extreme conditions for which there is little preparation or precedent. Who among us, we want to know, would live to tell the tale?

Take Steven Callahan, for example. On February 5, 1982, some 800 miles west of the Canary Islands, his boat, the Napoleon Solo, capsized in a storm. Callahan, then 30, found himself alone and adrift in a leaky inflatable raft with few resources. He collected rainwater for drinking and fashioned a makeshift spear for fishing. He ate barnacles and sometimes the birds attracted to the remains of those barnacles. To maintain his sanity, he took notes on his experience and did yoga whenever his weak body allowed it. Other than that, he waited and drifted west. Seventy-six days later, on April 21, a boat discovered Callahan off the coast of Guadeloupe. Even today, he is one of the only people to have lasted more than a month at sea on his own.

Callahan—an experienced mariner—possessed seafaring skills that were undoubtedly critical to his survival, but were these alone enough to save him? In his book Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, he describes his state of mind not long after the disaster:

About me lie the remnants of Solo. My equipment is properly secured, vital systems are functioning, and daily priorities are set, priorities not to be argued with. I somehow rise above mutinous apprehension, fear, and pain. I am captain of my tiny ship in treacherous waters. I escaped the confused turmoil following Solo's loss, and I have finally gotten food and water. I have overcome almost certain death. I now have a choice: to pilot myself to a new life or to give up and watch myself die. I choose to kick as long as I can.

Callahan framed his situation, dire though it was, in terms of choice. A vast ocean stretched before him on all sides. He saw nothing but its endless blue surface, below which lurked many dangers. However, in the lapping of the waves and the whistle of the wind, he did not hear a verdict of death. Instead, he heard a question: "Do you want to live?" The ability to hear that question and to answer it in the affirmative—to reclaim for himself the choice that the circumstances seemed to have taken away—may be what enabled him to survive. Next time someone asks you, "What would you do?," you might take a page from Callahan's book and reply, "I would choose."

Joe Simpson, another famous survivor, almost died during his descent from a mountain in the icy heights of the Peruvian Andes. After breaking his leg in a fall, he could barely walk, so his climbing partner, Simon Yates, attempted to lower him to safety using ropes. When Yates, who couldn't see or hear Simpson, unwittingly lowered him over the edge of a cliff, Simpson could no longer steady himself against the face of the mountain or climb back up. Yates now had to support all of Simpson's weight; sooner or later, he would no longer be able to do so, and both of them would plummet to their deaths. Finally, seeing no alternative, Yates cut the rope, believing he was sentencing his friend to death. What happened next was remarkable: Simpson fell onto a ledge in a crevasse, and over the next few days, he crawled five miles across a glacier, reaching base camp just as Yates was preparing to leave. In Touching the Void, his account of the incident, Simpson writes:

The desire to stop abseiling was almost unbearable. I had no idea what lay below me, and I was certain of only two things: Simon had gone and would not return. This meant that to stay on the ice bridge would finish me. There was no escape upwards, and the drop on the other side was nothing more than an invitation to end it all quickly. I had been tempted, but even in my despair I found that I didn't have the courage for suicide. It would be a long time before cold and exhaustion overtook me on the ice bridge, and the idea of waiting alone and maddened for so long had forced me to this choice: abseil until I could find a way out, or die in the process. I would meet it rather than wait for it to come to me. There was no going back now, yet inside I was screaming to stop.

For the willful Callahan and Simpson, survival was a matter of choice. And as presented by Simpson, in particular, the choice was an imperative rather than an opportunity; you might squander the latter, but it's almost impossible to resist the former.

Though most of us will never experience such extreme circumstances (we hope), we are nonetheless faced daily with our own imperatives to choose. Should we act or should we hang back and observe? Calmly accept whatever comes our way, or doggedly pursue the goals we have set for ourselves? We measure our lives using different markers: years, major events, achievements. We can also measure them by the choices we make, the sum total of which has brought us to wherever and whoever we are today. When we view life through this lens, it becomes clear that choice is an enormously powerful force, an essential determinant of how we live. But from where does the power of choice originate, and how best can we take advantage of it?


In 1957 Curt Richter, a prolific psychobiology researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, conducted an experiment that you might find shocking. To study the effect of water temperature on endurance, Richter and his colleagues placed dozens of rats into glass jars—one rodent per jar—and then filled the jars with water. Because the walls of these jars were too high and slick to climb, the rats were left in a literal sink-or-swim situation. Richter even had water jets blasting from above to force the rats below the surface if they tried to float idly instead of swimming for their lives. He then measured how long the rats swam—without food, rest, or chance of escape—before they drowned.

The researchers were surprised to find that even when the water temperatures were identical, rats of equal fitness swam for markedly different lengths of time. Some continued swimming for an average of 60 hours before succumbing to exhaustion, while others sank almost immediately. It was as though, after struggling for 15 minutes, some rats simply gave up, while others were determined to push themselves to the utmost physical limit. The perplexed researchers wondered whether some rats were more convinced than others that if they continued to swim, they would eventually escape. Were rats even capable of having different "convictions"? But what else could account for such a significant disparity in performance, especially when the survival instinct of all the rats must have kicked in? Perhaps the rats that showed more resilience had somehow been given reason to expect escape from their terrible predicament.

So in the next round of the experiment, rather than throwing them into the water straightaway, researchers first picked up the rats several times, each time allowing them to wriggle free. After they had become accustomed to such handling, the rats were placed in the jars, blasted with water for several minutes, then removed and returned to their cages. This process was repeated multiple times. Finally, the rats were put into the jars for the sink-or-swim test. This time, none of the rats showed signs of giving up. They swam for an average of more than 60 hours before becoming exhausted and drowning.

We're probably uncomfortable describing rats as having "beliefs," but having previously wriggled away from their captors and having also survived blasts of water, they seemed to believe they could not only withstand unpleasant circumstances but break free of them. Their experience had taught them that they had some control over the outcome and, perhaps, that rescue was just around the corner. In their incredible persistence, they were not unlike Callahan and Simpson, so could we say that these rats made a choice? Did they choose to live, at least for as long as their bodies could hold out?

There's a suffering that comes when persistence is unrewarded, and then there's the heartbreak of possible rescue gone unrecognized. In 1965, at Cornell University, psychologist Martin Seligman launched a series of experiments that fundamentally changed the way we think about control. His research team began by leading mongrel dogs—around the same size as beagles or Welsh corgis—into a white cubicle, one by one, and suspending them in rubberized, cloth harnesses. Panels were placed on either side of each dog's head, and a yoke between the panels—across the neck—held the head in place. Every dog was assigned a partner dog located in a different cubicle.

During the experiment each pair of dogs was periodically subjected to physically nondamaging yet painful electrical shocks, but there was a crucial difference between the two dogs' cubicles: One could put an end to the shock simply by pressing the side panels with its head, while the other could not turn it off, no matter how it writhed. The shocks were synchronized, starting at the same moment for each dog in the pair, and ending for both when the dog with the ability to deactivate pressed the side panel. Thus, the amount of shock was identical for the pair, but one dog experienced the pain as controllable, while the other did not. The dogs that could do nothing to end the shocks on their own soon began to cower and whine, signs of anxiety and depression that continued even after the sessions were over. The dogs that could stop the shocks, however, showed some irritation but soon learned to anticipate the pain and avoid it by pressing their panels.

In the second phase of the experiment, both dogs in the pair were exposed to a new situation to see how they would apply what they'd learned from being in—or out of—control. Researchers put each dog in a large black box with two compartments, divided by a low wall that came up to about shoulder height on the animals. On the dog's side, the floor was periodically electrified. On the other side, it was not. The wall was low enough to jump over, and the dogs that had previously been able to stop the shocks quickly figured out how to escape. But of the dogs that had not been able to end the shocks, two-thirds lay passively on the floor and suffered. The shocks continued, and although the dogs whined, they made no attempt to free themselves. Even when they saw other dogs jumping the wall, and even after researchers dragged them to the other side of the box to show them that the shocks were escapable, the dogs still gave up and endured the pain. For them, the freedom from pain just on the other side of the wall—so near and so readily accessible—was invisible.

When we speak of choice, what we mean is the ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment. In order to choose, we must first perceive that control is possible. The rats kept swimming despite mounting fatigue and no apparent means of escape because they had already tasted freedom, which—as far as they knew—they had attained through their own vigorous wriggling efforts. The dogs, on the other hand, having earlier suffered a complete loss of control, had learned that they were helpless. When control was restored to them later on, their behavior didn't change because they still could not perceive the control. For all practical purposes, they remained helpless. In other words, how much choice the animals technically had was far less important than how much choice they felt they had. And while the rats were doomed because of the design of the experiment, the persistence they exhibited could well have paid off in the real world, as it did for Callahan and Simpson.


When we look in the mirror, we see some of the "instruments" necessary for choice. Our eyes, nose, ears, and mouth gather information from our environment, while our arms and legs enable us to act on it. We depend on these capabilities to effectively negotiate between hunger and satiation, safety and vulnerability, even between life and death. Yet our ability to choose involves more than simply reacting to sensory information. Your knee may twitch if hit in the right place by a doctor's rubber mallet, but no one would consider this reflex to be a choice. To be able to truly choose, we must evaluate all available options and select the best one, making the mind as vital to choice as the body.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, we can identify the main brain system engaged when making choices: the corticostriatal network. Its first major component, the striatum, is buried deep in the middle of the brain and is relatively consistent in size and function across the animal kingdom, from reptiles to birds to mammals. It is part of a set of structures known as the basal ganglia, which serve as a sort of switchboard connecting the higher and lower mental functions. The striatum receives sensory information from other parts of the brain and has a role in planning movement, which is critical for our choice making. But its main choice-related function has to do with evaluating the reward associated with the experience; it is responsible for alerting us that "sugar = good" and "root canal = bad." Essentially, it provides the mental connection needed for wanting what we want.

Yet the mere knowledge that sweet things are appealing and root canals excruciating is not enough to guide our choices. We must also make the connection that under certain conditions, too much of a sweet thing can eventually lead to a root canal. This is where the other half of the corticostriatal network, the prefrontal cortex, comes into play. Located directly behind our foreheads, the prefrontal cortex acts as the brain's command center, receiving messages from the striatum and other parts of the body and using those messages to determine and execute the best overall course of action. It is involved in making complex cost-benefit analyses of immediate and future consequences. It also enables us to exercise impulse control when we are tempted to give in to something that we know to be detrimental to us in the long run.

The development of the prefrontal cortex is a perfect example of natural selection in action. While humans and animals both possess a prefrontal cortex, the percentage of the brain it occupies in humans is larger than in any other species, granting us an unparalleled ability to choose "rationally," superseding all other competing instincts. This facility improves with age, as our prefrontal cortex continues to develop well past adolescence. While motor abilities are largely developed by childhood, and factual reasoning abilities by adolescence, the prefrontal cortex undergoes a process of growth and consolidation that continues into our mid-20s. This is why young children have more difficulty understanding abstract concepts than adults, and both children and teenagers are especially prone to acting on impulse.

The ability to choose well is arguably the most powerful tool for controlling our environment. After all, it is humans who have dominated the planet, despite a conspicuous absence of sharp claws, thick hides, wings, or other obvious defenses. We are born with the tools to exercise choice, but just as significantly, we're born with the desire to do so. Neurons in the striatum, for example, respond more to rewards that people or animals actively choose than to identical rewards that are passively received. As the song goes, "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly," and we all gotta choose.

This desire to choose is so innate that we act on it even before we can express it. In a study of infants as young as four months, researchers attached strings to the infants' hands and let them learn that by tugging the string, they could cause pleasant music to play. When the researchers later broke the association with the string, making the music play at random intervals instead, the children became sad and angry, even though the experiment was designed so that they heard the same amount of music as when they had activated the music themselves. These children didn't only want to hear music; they craved the power to choose it.

Ironically, while the power of choice lies in its ability to unearth the best option possible out of all those presented, sometimes the desire to choose is so strong that it can interfere with the pursuit of these very benefits. Even in situations where there is no advantage to having more choice, meaning that it actually raises the cost in time and effort, choice is still instinctively preferred. In one experiment, rats in a maze were given the option of taking a direct path or one that branched into several other paths. The direct and the branched paths eventually led to the same amount of food, so one held no advantage over the other. Nevertheless, over multiple trials, nearly every rat preferred to take the branching path. Similarly, pigeons and monkeys that learned to press buttons to dispense food preferred to have a choice of multiple buttons to press, even though the choice of two buttons as opposed to one didn't result in a greater food reward. And though humans can consciously override this preference, this doesn't necessarily mean we will. In another experiment, people given a casino chip preferred to spend it at a table with two identical roulette-style wheels rather than at a table with a single wheel, even though they could bet on only one of the wheels, and all three wheels were identical.

The desire to choose is thus a natural drive, and though it most likely developed because it is a crucial aid to our survival, it often operates independently of any concrete benefits. In such cases, the power of choice is so great that it becomes not merely a means to an end but something intrinsically valuable and necessary. So what happens when we enjoy the benefits that choice is meant to confer but our need for choice itself is not met?


Imagine the ultimate luxury hotel. There's gourmet food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. During the day, you do as you please: lounge by the pool, get a spa treatment, romp in the game room. At night, you sleep in a king-size bed with down pillows and 600-thread-count sheets. The staff is ever present and ever pleasant, happy to fulfill any requests you might have, and the hotel even boasts state-of-the-art medical services. You can bring your whole family and socialize with lots of new people. If you're single, you might find that special someone among all the attractive men and women around. And the best part is that it's free. There's just one small catch: Once you check in, you can never leave.

No, it's not the famous Hotel California. Such luxurious imprisonment is the norm for animals in zoos across the world. Since the 1970s and 1980s, zoos have strived to reproduce the natural habitats of their animals, replacing concrete floors and steel bars with grass, boulders, trees, and pools of water. These environments may simulate the wild, but the animals don't have to worry about finding food, shelter, or safety from predators; all the necessities of life seem to be provided for them. While this may not seem like such a bad deal at first glance, the animals experience numerous complications. The zebras live constantly under the sword of Damocles, smelling the lions in the nearby Great Cats exhibit every day and finding themselves unable to escape. There's no possibility of migrating or of hoarding food for the winter, which must seem to promise equally certain doom to a bird or bear. In fact, the animals have no way of even knowing whether the food that has magically appeared each day thus far will appear again tomorrow, and no power to provide for themselves. In short, zoo life is utterly incompatible with an animal's most deeply ingrained survival instincts.

In spite of the dedication of their human caretakers, animals in zoos may feel caught in a death trap because they exert minimal control over their own lives. Every year, undaunted by the extensive moats, walls, nets, and glass surrounding their habitats, many animals attempt escape, and some of them even succeed. In 2008, Bruno, a 29-year-old orangutan at the Los Angeles Zoo, punched a hole in the mesh surrounding his habitat, only to find himself in a holding pen. No one was hurt, but 3,000 visitors were evacuated before Bruno was sedated by a handler. A year earlier, a four-year-old Siberian tiger known as Tatiana had jumped the 25-foot moat at the San Francisco Zoo, killing one person and injuring two others before she was shot dead. And in 2004, at the Berlin Zoo, the Andean bespectacled bear Juan used a log to "surf" his way across the moat surrounding his habitat before climbing a wall to freedom. After he had taken a whirl on the zoo's merry-go-round and a few trips down the slide, he was shot with a tranquilizer dart by zoo officials.

These and countless other stories reveal that the need for control is a powerful motivator, even when it can lead to harm. This isn't only because exercising control feels good, but because being unable to do so is naturally unpleasant and stressful. Under duress, the endocrine system produces stress hormones such as adrenaline that prepare the body for dealing with immediate danger. We've all felt the fight-or-flight response in a dangerous situation or when stressed, frustrated, or panicked. Breathing and heart rates increase and the blood vessels narrow, enabling oxygen-rich blood to be pumped quickly to the extremities. Energy spent on bodily processes such as digestion and maintaining the immune system is temporarily reduced, freeing more energy for sudden action. Pupils dilate, reflexes quicken, and concentration increases. Only when the crisis has passed does the body resume normal function.

Such responses are survival-enhancing for short-term situations in the wild because they motivate an animal to terminate the source of stress and regain control. But when the source of stress is unending—that is, when it can't be fled or fought—the body continues its stressed response until it is exhausted. Animals in a zoo still experience anxiety over basic survival needs and the possibility of predator attacks because they don't know that they're safe. Physically, remaining in a constant state of heightened alert can induce a weakened immune system, ulcers, and even heart problems. Mentally, this stress can cause a variety of repetitive and sometimes self-destructive behaviors known as stereotypies, the animal equivalent of wringing one's hands or biting one's lip, which are considered a sign of depression or anxiety by most biologists.

Gus, the 700-pound polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, exhibited such behavior back in 1994 when, to the dismay of zoo-goers and his keepers, he spent the bulk of his time swimming an endless series of short laps. In order to address his neuroses, Gus—a true New Yorker—was set up with a therapist: animal behaviorist Tim Desmond, known for training the whale in Free Willy. Desmond concluded that Gus needed more challenges and opportunities to exercise his instincts. Gus wanted to feel as if he still had the ability to choose where he spent his time and how—he needed to reassume control of his own destiny. Similarly, the frequent grooming that pet hamsters and lab mice engage in isn't due to their fastidious natures; it's a nervous habit that can continue until they completely rub and gnaw away patches of their fur. If administered fluoxetine, the anti-depressant most commonly known as Prozac, the animals reduce or discontinue these behaviors.

Due to these physically and psychologically harmful effects, captivity can often result in lower life expectancies despite objectively improved living conditions. Wild African elephants, for example, have an average life span of 56 years as compared to 17 years for zoo-born elephants. Other deleterious effects include fewer births (a chronic problem with captive pandas) and high infant mortality rates (over 65 percent for polar bears). Though this is bad news for any captive animal, it is especially alarming in the case of endangered species.

For all the material comforts zoos provide and all their attempts to replicate animals' natural habitats as closely as possible, even the most sophisticated zoos cannot match the level of stimulation and exercise of natural instincts that animals experience in the wild. The desperation of a life in captivity is perhaps conveyed best in Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "The Panther": As the animal "paces in cramped circles, over and over," he seems to perform "a ritual dance around a center / in which a mighty will stands paralyzed." Unlike the dogs in the Seligman experiment, the panther displays his paralysis not by lying still, but by constantly moving. Just like the helpless dogs, however, he cannot see past his confinement: "It seems to him there are / a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world." Whether the bars are real or metaphorical, when one has no control, it is as if nothing exists beyond the pain of this loss.



On Sale
Mar 1, 2010
Hachette Audio

Sheena Iyengar

About the Author

Sheena Iyengar‘s groundbreaking research on choice has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Security Education Program. She holds degrees from UPenn, The Wharton School of Business, and Stanford University. She is a professor at Columbia University, and a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award. Her work is regularly cited in periodicals as diverse as Fortune and Time magazines, the NYT and the WSJ, and in books such as Blink and The Paradox of Choice.

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