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(PAST IS) PROLOGUE

Everything begins with a story.

—Joseph Campbell

I was born in Toronto, one month early and during a blizzard that covered the city in snow and silence. The surprise and the low visibility conditions that accompanied my arrival were portents, though they went unrecognized at the time. My mother, as a recent immigrant from India, was of two worlds, and she would pass that multiple identity on to me. My father was making his way to Canada, but had not yet arrived; his absence at my birth was a sign of the deeper absence yet to come. Looking back, I see all the ways in which my life was set the moment I was born into it. Whether in the stars or in stone, whether by the hand of God or some unnameable force, it was already written, and every action of mine would serve to confirm the text.

That is one story. Here’s another.

You never know, do you? It’s a jack-in-the-box life: you open it carefully, one parcel at a time, but things keep springing up and out. That’s how I came into the world—suddenly—a month before I was due, my father not even able to receive me. He was still in India, where my mother had always imagined she, too, would be. Yet, somehow, she had ended up in Toronto with me in her arms, and through the window she could see the snow whirling. Like those flakes of ice, we were carried to other places: Flushing, Queens, and then Elmwood Park, New Jersey. I grew up in enclaves of Sikh immigrants, who—like my parents—had left India but had also brought it with them. And so I was raised in a country within a country, my parents trying to re-create the life that was familiar to them.

Three days a week, they took me to the gurudwara, or temple, where I sat on the right side with the women, while the men clustered on the left. In accordance with the articles of the Sikh faith, I kept my hair long and uncut, a symbol of the perfection of God’s creation. I wore a kara, a steel bracelet, on my right wrist as a symbol of my resilience and devotion, and as a reminder that whatever I did was done under the watchful eyes of God. At all times, even in the shower, I wore a kachchha, an undergarment that resembled boxers and represented control over sexual desire. These were just some of the rules I followed, as do all observant Sikhs, and whatever was not dictated by religion was decided by my parents. Ostensibly, this was for my own good, but life has a way of poking holes in your plans, or in the plans others make for you.

As a toddler, I constantly ran into things, and at first my parents thought I was just very clumsy. But surely a parking meter was a large enough obstacle to avoid? And why did I need to be warned so frequently to watch where I was going? When it became obvious that I was no ordinary klutz, I was taken to a vision specialist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He quickly solved the mystery: I had a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease of retinal degeneration, which had left me with 20/400 vision. By the time I reached high school, I was fully blind, able to perceive only light.

A surprise today does prepare us, I suppose, for the ones still in store. Coping with blindness must have made me more resilient. (Or was I able to cope well because of my innate resilience?) No matter how prepared we are, though, we can still have the wind knocked out of us. I was 13 when my father died. That morning, he dropped my mother off at work in Harlem and promised to see a doctor for the leg pain and breathing problems he’d been having. At the doctor’s office, however, there was some confusion about his appointment time, and no one could see him right then. Frustrated by this—and already stressed for other reasons—he stormed out of the office and pounded the pavement, until he collapsed in front of a bar. The bartender pulled him inside and called for an ambulance, and my father was eventually taken to the hospital, but he could not survive the multiple heart attacks he had suffered by the time he got there.

This is not to say that our lives are shaped solely by random and unpleasant events, but they do seem, for better or worse, to move forward along largely unmapped terrain. To what extent can you direct your own life when you can see only so far and the weather changes quicker than you can say “Surprise!”?

****

Wait. I have still another story for you. And though it is mine, once again I suspect that this time, you will see your own in it, too.

In 1971, my parents emigrated from India to America, by way of Canada. Like so many before them, when they landed on the shores of this new country and a new life, they sought the American Dream. They soon found out that pursuing it entailed many hardships, but they persevered. I was born into the dream, and I think I understood it better than my parents did, for I was more fluent in American culture. In particular, I realized that the shining thing at its center—so bright you could see it even if you, like me, were blind—was choice.

My parents had chosen to come to this country, but they had also chosen to hold on to as much of India as possible. They lived among other Sikhs, followed closely the tenets of their religion, and taught me the value of obedience. What to eat, wear, study, and later on, where to work and whom to marry—I was to allow these to be determined by the rules of Sikhism and by my family’s wishes. But in public school I learned that it was not only natural but desirable that I should make my own decisions. It was not a matter of cultural background or personality or abilities; it was simply what was true and right. For a blind Sikh girl otherwise subject to so many restrictions, this was a very powerful idea. I could have thought of my life as already written, which would have been more in line with my parents’ views. Or I could have thought of it as a series of accidents beyond my control, which was one way to account for my blindness and my father’s death. However, it seemed much more promising to think of it in terms of choice, in terms of what was still possible and what I could make happen.

Many of us have conceived and told our stories only in the language of choice. It is certainly the lingua franca of America, and its use has risen rapidly in much of the rest of the world. We are more likely to recognize one another’s stories when we tell them in this language, and as I hope to show in this book, “speaking choice” has many benefits. But I also hope to reveal other ways in which we live and tell our lives, form narratives that are more complex and nuanced than the simplified alternatives of Destiny and Chance that I have presented here.

****

The informal study of choice that I undertook as a child turned academic when I got to college. At the University of Pennsylvania, I studied different religious groups to find out how religion affects one’s outlook on life. This research suggested that ideas about choice vary widely, that my experience as a Sikh and an American had exposed me to only a small set of them. Later, as a doctoral student in social psychology at Stanford University, I compared the construction and practice of choice across cultures. I examined cultural differences and also the everyday factors that affect our choices. This has been the focus of my work for the past 15 years.

“Choice” can mean so many different things and its study approached in so many different ways that one book cannot contain its fullness. I aim to explore those aspects of it that I have found to be most thought-provoking and most relevant to how we live. This book is firmly grounded in psychology, but I draw on various fields and disciplines, including business, economics, biology, philosophy, cultural studies, public policy, and medicine. In doing so, I hope to present as many perspectives as possible and to challenge received notions about the role and practice of choice in our lives.

Each of the following seven chapters will look at choice from a different vantage point and tackle various questions about the way choice affects our lives. Why is choice powerful, and where does its power come from? Do we all choose in the same way? What is the relationship between how we choose and who we are? Why are we so often disappointed by our choices, and how do we make the most effective use of the tool of choice? How much control do we really have over our everyday choices? How do we choose when our options are practically unlimited? Should we ever let others choose for us, and if yes, who and why? Whether or not you agree with my opinions, suggestions, and conclusions—and I’m sure we won’t always see eye to eye—just the process of exploring these questions can help you make more informed decisions. Choice, ranging from the trivial to the life-altering, in both its presence and its absence, is an inextricable part of our life stories. As you read this book, I hope you will gain insight into yourself, your life, how it all began, and where it is headed.

CHAPTER 6

In 1925, Prussian immigrant Gustave Draeger opened a delicatessen in San Francisco. Thanks to hard work and enterprise, the business grew quickly. After Prohibition ended, he set up a small chain of liquor stores, and by the time he retired, Draeger had established San Francisco’s first supermarket. His sons took over and expanded further, closing the original store but adding several new ones. As a graduate student, I often visited the Menlo Park Draeger’s, well known for its awe-inducing shopping experience. The carved oak columns in the atrium, the black marble countertops and dark ceramic floor tiles, the wine section lined with 20,000 bottles–these were just some of the elements that transformed a grocery store into a grand theater for acts of consumership (frequently documented by camera-wielding Japanese tourists).

You could buy the best pots and pans to whip up recipes from any of the 3,000 cookbooks also on sale, and you could pick up some pointers at the cooking school on the second floor. Or if you were too hungry to wait until you got home, the in-store restaurant served $10 gourmet burgers. (Bear in mind that this was 1995, when a McDonald’s burger cost 85 cents). Walking down and across the many aisles, you’d see 15 types of bottled water, 150 sorts of vinegar, nearly 250 mustards, 250 different cheeses, over 300 flavors of jam, and 500 kinds of produce. The olive oils were more modest in number–only 75 options–but not in price; some of them, aged for a hundred years or more, were displayed in a locked glass case and cost more than $1,000 a bottle. All of this variety, emphasized in the advertising, was a source of pride and distinction for Draeger’s. To introduce people to it, tasting booths were often set up with 20 to 50 different samples of some product. The store was undoubtedly attracting attention for its unparalleled selection, but was that attention translating into sales?

The manager, a firm believer in the benefits of choice, was just as interested as I was in the answer to this question. I convinced him to let me conduct a study with a tasting booth of my own. (We kept it a secret from the employees in order to avoid interference; for example, attempts to influence the customers.) My research assistants and I pretended to represent Wilkin & Sons, supplier of jams to the Queen of England. We chose this brand because we wanted variety and high quality, and we picked jam because it’s easy on the tongue, unlike mustard or vinegar, and most people enjoy it, or at least don’t seem to mind it.

The booth was set up near the entrance, where it was most likely to catch the eyes of shoppers, and it was run by Irene and Stephanie, two affable Stanford undergrads. Every few hours we switched between offering a large assortment of jams and a small one. The large assortment contained 24 of the 28 total flavors made by Wilkin & Sons. (We removed strawberry, raspberry, grape, and orange marmalade so that people wouldn’t just choose what was most familiar to them.) The small assortment consisted of six jams plucked from the large assortment: kiwi, peach, black cherry, lemon curd, red currant, and three fruits marmalade. Another research assistant, Eugene, positioned himself strategically behind some impressive cookware near the booth. From there, he observed people entering the store and recorded how many stopped to sample the jams. He found that 60 percent were drawn to the large assortment but only 40 percent to the small one. (Such was his dedication, he risked arrest to acquire this data; store employees thought he was trying to shoplift the $300 Le Creuset pans behind which he was lurking.)

6 Jams
24 Jams

Meanwhile, at the booth, Irene and Stephanie encouraged customers to taste as many jams as they liked. On average, they tasted two jams regardless of the size of the assortment. Then each person was given a coupon valid for one week that knocked $1 off any single Wilkin & Sons jam. Most of the people who decided to buy a jar did so on the same day they received the coupon. Because we weren’t selling the jams at the booth, customers had to go to the jam aisle, make a selection, and pay for it at the register. In that aisle, they might have noticed an employee with a clipboard taking inventory. In fact, he was another member of our team, Mike, and yes, he was spying on the customers. He noted that people who had sampled the large assortment were quite puzzled. They kept examining different jars, and if they were with other people, they discussed the relative merits of the flavors. This went on for up to ten minutes, at which point many of them left empty-handed. By contrast, those who had seen only six jams seemed to know exactly which one was right for them. They strode down the aisle, grabbed a jar in a quick minute–lemon curd was the favorite–and continued with the rest of their shopping. When we tallied the coupons (the bar codes let us know which assortment each buyer had seen), we discovered the following: 30 percent of the people who had seen the small assortment decided to buy jam, but only 3 percent bought a jar after seeing the large assortment. Even though the latter attracted more attention, more than six times as many people made a purchase when we displayed the smaller set of jams.

6 Jams 24 Jams

When I shared these findings with the manager, he ruminated on the implications. Everyone could agree that the Draeger’s experience was mind-boggling, but what did this mean for how the store should be run? For many people, having one’s mind boggled was the whole point of going to Draeger’s; it wasn’t just shopping, it was entertainment. But in order to thrive, the store required more than just visitors and spectators. A significant portion of the people walking through the doors had to be turned into paying customers, but the fantastic variety seemed to favor browsers over buyers. How could the manager ensure that the very choice that brought the masses in didn’t end up pushing them out without so much as a jar of jam for a souvenir?

****

As the years have passed, the challenges posed by choice, both to customers and to managers, have only grown. In 1994, the year I had my first inkling that there might be such a thing as too much choice, over 500,000 different consumer goods were already available in the United States. By 2003, the number had increased to nearly 700,000, an upward trend that shows no signs of letting up. Technological advances frequently introduce new categories of products into our lives. Some of them–cell phones, computers, digital cameras–become indispensable, and soon enough the options proliferate. Just as importantly, not only are there more goods on the market, there are more ways to get at them. The typical supermarket, which carried 3,750 different items in 1949, now boasts some 45,000 items. Walmart and other “big-box” retailers offer smorgasbords of over 100,000 products to Americans in just about every part of the country. And if you don’t find what you’re looking for within a few blocks, you’ll certainly find it with a few clicks. The Internet extends your reach well beyond local venues, providing access to the 100,000 DVDs on Netflix.com, 24 million books (and millions of other products) on Amazon.com, and 15 million singles on Match.com.

The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there is something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all of this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it. We think the profusion of possibilities must make it that much easier to find that perfect gift for a friend’s birthday, only to find ourselves paralyzed in the face of row upon row of potential presents. Which one is really her? Which one is truly the “perfect” gift? This one is good, but how do I know that there isn’t something better someplace else, and have I, by now, looked hard enough for it? We exhaust ourselves in the search, and something that should have been a joy–celebrating a loved one–becomes a chore. But can we really complain? This abundance, which many of us take for granted, is not available to everyone. When we question it, we might be accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth, or somebody might offer to play us the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin. Moreover, whatever our reservations about choice, we have continued to demand more of it, and these demands have not gone unheeded.

One can’t deny that all this choice does come with certain benefits, and wasting several minutes in the jam aisle seems like a fairly benign side effect. What happens, though, when the number of options increases for more important and complex choices, such as those concerning finance and health?

The story continues in the book:
The lessons of 401(k)s and Medicare Part D, superstars vs. underdogs on the Long Tail, why chess masters can beat you blindfolded . . . and much more.