The Sikh wedding (of Iyengar’s parents) shows how crucial aspects of a marriage—the choice of “whom to marry to what to wear to what to eat—- can be decided by people other than the bride and the groom. On the other hand, the tale of Joe Simpson, who abseiled over the Andean glacier to safety after his partner Simon Yates had given him up for dead and cut his rope, illustrates how one can “choose” to survive in the face of unassailable odds.
Iyengar’s book draws on a lifetime of research, including studies she conducted in college and graduate school, which are used to explain why we choose a particular iPhone or a certain brand of soda or a particular health insurance policy. She was drawn to this particular field of research by an interplay of several factors, among them, being born to Sikh immigrant parents living in North America and more poignantly, the onset of blindness early in life. As part of the immigrant experience, she became a “part of two different worlds”. “These two worlds didn’t just comprise two different languages, or two different sets of rules, but offered two entirely different narratives about how to live one’s life,” she says in email interview.
In fact, the Asian narrative of collectivism, with its emphasis on the “we” (family, colleagues or village) as contrasted with the American emphasis on individualism explains many of the choices that we make. In an interesting experiment conducted in a San Francisco elementary school that involved choosing and solving anagrams, Iyengar, 40, had found that Anglo-American children performed better when allowed to exercise personal choice while Asian American children were motivated when told that their mothers had assigned them a particular task. Iyengar does not privilege either of these choices over the other; collective action, after all, can be as inspiring and purposeful as Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi, while tales of inspired individualism abound as well. “Both extreme ends of the spectrum are problematic, but different places along the continuum have their own particular benefits,” she says.
Blindness was a circumstance that Iyengar had to deal with and which influenced her field of study. “Being blind took many options off the table, among them my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. But this bodily condition that I did not choose led me to make the most of what I could choose, reminding me to focus on choices that matter,” she says. Her next project will involve creating a global choice index— from consumer products to marriage and religion—for people from 40 countries, including India.