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Annotated captions of Sheena Iyengar: The art of choosing in English

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Today, I'm going to take you

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around the world in 18 minutes.

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My base of operations is in the U.S.,

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but let's start at the other end of the map,

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in Kyoto, Japan,

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where I was living with a Japanese family

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while I was doing part of my dissertational research

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15 years ago.

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I knew even then that I would encounter

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cultural differences and misunderstandings,

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but they popped up when I least expected it.

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On my first day,

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I went to a restaurant,

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and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar.

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After a pause, the waiter said,

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"One does not put sugar in green tea."

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"I know," I said. "I'm aware of this custom.

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But I really like my tea sweet."

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In response, he gave me an even more courteous version

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of the same explanation.

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"One does not put sugar

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in green tea."

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"I understand," I said,

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"that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea,

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but I'd like to put some sugar

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in my green tea."

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(Laughter)

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Surprised by my insistence,

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the waiter took up the issue with the manager.

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Pretty soon,

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a lengthy discussion ensued,

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and finally the manager came over to me and said,

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"I am very sorry. We do not have sugar."

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(Laughter)

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Well, since I couldn't have my tea the way I wanted it,

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I ordered a cup of coffee,

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which the waiter brought over promptly.

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Resting on the saucer

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were two packets of sugar.

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My failure to procure myself

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a cup of sweet, green tea

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was not due to a simple misunderstanding.

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This was due to a fundamental difference

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in our ideas about choice.

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From my American perspective,

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when a paying customer makes a reasonable request

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based on her preferences,

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she has every right to have that request met.

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The American way, to quote Burger King,

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is to "have it your way,"

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because, as Starbucks says,

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"happiness is in your choices."

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(Laughter)

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But from the Japanese perspective,

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it's their duty to protect those who don't know any better --

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(Laughter)

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in this case, the ignorant gaijin --

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from making the wrong choice.

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Let's face it: the way I wanted my tea

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was inappropriate according to cultural standards,

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and they were doing their best to help me save face.

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Americans tend to believe

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that they've reached some sort of pinnacle

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in the way they practice choice.

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They think that choice, as seen through the American lens

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best fulfills an innate and universal

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desire for choice in all humans.

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Unfortunately,

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these beliefs are based on assumptions

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that don't always hold true

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in many countries, in many cultures.

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At times they don't even hold true

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at America's own borders.

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I'd like to discuss some of these assumptions

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and the problems associated with them.

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As I do so, I hope you'll start thinking

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about some of your own assumptions

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and how they were shaped by your backgrounds.

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First assumption:

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if a choice affects you,

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then you should be the one to make it.

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This is the only way to ensure

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that your preferences and interests

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will be most fully accounted for.

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It is essential for success.

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In America, the primary locus of choice

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is the individual.

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People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns,

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regardless of what other people want or recommend.

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It's called "being true to yourself."

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But do all individuals benefit

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from taking such an approach to choice?

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Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies

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in which we sought the answer to this very question.

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In one study,

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which we ran in Japantown, San Francisco,

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we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children

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into the laboratory,

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and we divided them up into three groups.

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The first group came in,

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and they were greeted by Miss Smith,

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who showed them six big piles of anagram puzzles.

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The kids got to choose which pile of anagrams they would like to do,

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and they even got to choose which marker

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they would write their answers with.

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When the second group of children came in,

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they were brought to the same room, shown the same anagrams,

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but this time Miss Smith told them

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which anagrams to do

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and which markers to write their answers with.

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Now when the third group came in,

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they were told that their anagrams and their markers

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had been chosen by their mothers.

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(Laughter)

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In reality,

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the kids who were told what to do,

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whether by Miss Smith or their mothers,

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were actually given the very same activity,

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which their counterparts in the first group

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had freely chosen.

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With this procedure, we were able to ensure

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that the kids across the three groups

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all did the same activity,

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making it easier for us to compare performance.

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Such small differences in the way we administered the activity

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yielded striking differences

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in how well they performed.

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Anglo-Americans,

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they did two and a half times more anagrams

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when they got to choose them,

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as compared to when it was

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chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers.

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It didn't matter who did the choosing,

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if the task was dictated by another,

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their performance suffered.

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In fact, some of the kids were visibly embarrassed

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when they were told that their mothers had been consulted.

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(Laughter)

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One girl named Mary said,

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"You asked my mother?"

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(Laughter)

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In contrast,

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Asian-American children

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performed best when they believed

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their mothers had made the choice,

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second best when they chose for themselves,

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and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith.

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A girl named Natsumi

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even approached Miss Smith as she was leaving the room

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and tugged on her skirt and asked,

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"Could you please tell my mommy

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I did it just like she said?"

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The first-generation children were strongly influenced

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by their immigrant parents'

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approach to choice.

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For them, choice was not just a way

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of defining and asserting

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their individuality,

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but a way to create community and harmony

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by deferring to the choices

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of people whom they trusted and respected.

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If they had a concept of being true to one's self,

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then that self, most likely,

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[was] composed, not of an individual,

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but of a collective.

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Success was just as much about pleasing key figures

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as it was about satisfying

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one's own preferences.

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Or, you could say that

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the individual's preferences were shaped

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by the preferences of specific others.

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The assumption then that we do best

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when the individual self chooses

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only holds

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when that self

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is clearly divided from others.

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When, in contrast,

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two or more individuals

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see their choices and their outcomes

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as intimately connected,

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then they may amplify one another's success

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by turning choosing

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into a collective act.

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To insist that they choose independently

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might actually compromise

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both their performance

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and their relationships.

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Yet that is exactly what

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the American paradigm demands.

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It leaves little room for interdependence

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or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility.

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It requires that everyone treat choice

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as a private and self-defining act.

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People that have grown up in such a paradigm

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might find it motivating,

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but it is a mistake to assume

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that everyone thrives under the pressure

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of choosing alone.

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The second assumption which informs the American view of choice

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goes something like this.

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08:01

The more choices you have,

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the more likely you are

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to make the best choice.

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So bring it on, Walmart, with 100,000 different products,

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and Amazon, with 27 million books

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and Match.com with -- what is it? --

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15 million date possibilities now.

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You will surely find the perfect match.

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Let's test this assumption

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by heading over to Eastern Europe.

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Here, I interviewed people

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who were residents of formerly communist countries,

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who had all faced the challenge

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of transitioning to a more

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democratic and capitalistic society.

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One of the most interesting revelations

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came not from an answer to a question,

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but from a simple gesture of hospitality.

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When the participants arrived for their interview,

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I offered them a set of drinks:

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Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite --

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seven, to be exact.

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During the very first session,

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which was run in Russia,

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one of the participants made a comment

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that really caught me off guard.

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"Oh, but it doesn't matter.

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It's all just soda. That's just one choice."

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(Murmuring)

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I was so struck by this comment that from then on,

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I started to offer all the participants

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those seven sodas,

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and I asked them, "How many choices are these?"

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Again and again,

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they perceived these seven different sodas,

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not as seven choices, but as one choice:

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soda or no soda.

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When I put out juice and water

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in addition to these seven sodas,

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now they perceived it as only three choices --

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juice, water and soda.

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Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans,

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not just to a particular flavor of soda,

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but to a particular brand.

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You know, research shows repeatedly

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that we can't actually tell the difference

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between Coke and Pepsi.

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Of course, you and I know

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that Coke is the better choice.

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(Laughter)

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For modern Americans who are exposed

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to more options and more ads associated with options

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than anyone else in the world,

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choice is just as much about who they are

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as it is about what the product is.

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Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better,

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and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters

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and so every choice matters.

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But for Eastern Europeans,

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the sudden availability of all these

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consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge.

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They were flooded with choice

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before they could protest that they didn't know how to swim.

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When asked, "What words and images

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do you associate with choice?"

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Grzegorz from Warsaw said,

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"Ah, for me it is fear.

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There are some dilemmas you see.

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I am used to no choice."

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Bohdan from Kiev said,

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in response to how he felt about

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the new consumer marketplace,

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"It is too much.

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We do not need everything that is there."

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A sociologist from

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the Warsaw Survey Agency explained,

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"The older generation jumped from nothing

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to choice all around them.

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They were never given a chance to learn

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how to react."

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And Tomasz, a young Polish man said,

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"I don't need twenty kinds of chewing gum.

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I don't mean to say that I want no choice,

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but many of these choices are quite artificial."

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In reality, many choices are between things

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that are not that much different.

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The value of choice

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depends on our ability

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to perceive differences

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between the options.

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Americans train their whole lives

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to play "spot the difference."

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They practice this from such an early age

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that they've come to believe that everyone

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must be born with this ability.

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In fact, though all humans share

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a basic need and desire for choice,

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we don't all see choice in the same places

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12:01

or to the same extent.

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When someone can't see how one choice

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is unlike another,

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or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast,

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the process of choosing can be

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confusing and frustrating.

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Instead of making better choices,

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we become overwhelmed by choice,

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sometimes even afraid of it.

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Choice no longer offers opportunities,

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but imposes constraints.

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It's not a marker of liberation,

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but of suffocation

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by meaningless minutiae.

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In other words,

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choice can develop into the very opposite

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of everything it represents

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in America

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when it is thrust upon those

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who are insufficiently prepared for it.

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But it is not only other people

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in other places

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that are feeling the pressure

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of ever-increasing choice.

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Americans themselves are discovering

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that unlimited choice

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seems more attractive in theory

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than in practice.

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13:02

We all have physical, mental

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and emotional (Laughter) limitations

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that make it impossible for us

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to process every single choice we encounter,

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even in the grocery store,

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let alone over the course of our entire lives.

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A number of my studies have shown

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that when you give people 10 or more options

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when they're making a choice, they make poorer decisions,

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whether it be health care, investment,

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other critical areas.

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Yet still, many of us believe

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that we should make all our own choices

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and seek out even more of them.

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This brings me to the third,

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and perhaps most problematic, assumption:

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"You must never

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say no to choice."

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To examine this, let's go back to the U.S.

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and then hop across the pond to France.

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Right outside Chicago,

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a young couple, Susan and Daniel Mitchell,

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were about to have their first baby.

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They'd already picked out a name for her,

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Barbara, after her grandmother.

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One night, when Susan was seven months pregnant,

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she started to experience contractions

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and was rushed to the emergency room.

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The baby was delivered through a C-section,

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but Barbara suffered cerebral anoxia,

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a loss of oxygen to the brain.

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Unable to breathe on her own,

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she was put on a ventilator.

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14:25

Two days later,

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the doctors gave the Mitchells

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a choice:

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They could either remove Barbara

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off the life support,

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14:36

in which case she would die within a matter of hours,

tedtalks 14:36
14:39

or they could keep her on life support,

tedtalks 14:39
14:41

in which case she might still die

tedtalks 14:41
14:43

within a matter of days.

tedtalks 14:43
14:45

If she survived, she would remain

tedtalks 14:45
14:48

in a permanent vegetative state,

tedtalks 14:48
14:51

never able to walk, talk

tedtalks 14:51
14:54

or interact with others.

tedtalks 14:54
14:56

What do they do?

tedtalks 14:56
14:59

What do any parent do?

tedtalks 15:02
15:04

In a study I conducted

tedtalks 15:04
15:06

with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali,

tedtalks 15:06
15:08

American and French parents

tedtalks 15:08
15:10

were interviewed.

tedtalks 15:10
15:12

They had all suffered

tedtalks 15:12
15:14

the same tragedy.

tedtalks 15:14
15:17

In all cases, the life support was removed,

tedtalks 15:17
15:19

and the infants had died.

tedtalks 15:19
15:21

But there was a big difference.

tedtalks 15:21
15:24

In France, the doctors decided whether and when

tedtalks 15:24
15:27

the life support would be removed,

tedtalks 15:27
15:29

while in the United States,

tedtalks 15:29
15:32

the final decision rested with the parents.

tedtalks 15:33
15:35

We wondered:

tedtalks 15:35
15:37

does this have an effect on how the parents

tedtalks 15:37
15:40

cope with the loss of their loved one?

tedtalks 15:40
15:43

We found that it did.

tedtalks 15:43
15:45

Even up to a year later,

tedtalks 15:45
15:47

American parents

tedtalks 15:47
15:49

were more likely to express negative emotions,

tedtalks 15:49
15:52

as compared to their French counterparts.

tedtalks 15:52
15:55

French parents were more likely to say things like,

tedtalks 15:55
15:58

"Noah was here for so little time,

tedtalks 15:58
16:00

but he taught us so much.

tedtalks 16:00
16:03

He gave us a new perspective on life."

tedtalks 16:04
16:07

American parents were more likely to say things like,

tedtalks 16:07
16:10

"What if? What if?"

tedtalks 16:10
16:12

Another parent complained,

tedtalks 16:12
16:15

"I feel as if they purposefully tortured me.

tedtalks 16:15
16:18

How did they get me to do that?"

tedtalks 16:18
16:20

And another parent said,

tedtalks 16:20
16:22

"I feel as if I've played a role

tedtalks 16:22
16:25

in an execution."

tedtalks 16:25
16:27

But when the American parents were asked

tedtalks 16:27
16:29

if they would rather have had

tedtalks 16:29
16:32

the doctors make the decision,

tedtalks 16:32
16:34

they all said, "No."

tedtalks 16:34
16:36

They could not imagine

tedtalks 16:36
16:38

turning that choice over to another,

tedtalks 16:38
16:41

even though having made that choice

tedtalks 16:41
16:43

made them feel trapped,

tedtalks 16:43
16:45

guilty, angry.

tedtalks 16:45
16:47

In a number of cases

tedtalks 16:47
16:50

they were even clinically depressed.

tedtalks 16:50
16:52

These parents could not contemplate

tedtalks 16:52
16:54

giving up the choice,

tedtalks 16:54
16:56

because to do so would have gone contrary

tedtalks 16:56
16:59

to everything they had been taught

tedtalks 16:59
17:01

and everything they had come to believe

tedtalks 17:01
17:03

about the power

tedtalks 17:03
17:06

and purpose of choice.

tedtalks 17:06
17:09

In her essay, "The White Album,"

tedtalks 17:09
17:12

Joan Didion writes,

tedtalks 17:12
17:14

"We tell ourselves stories

tedtalks 17:14
17:16

in order to live.

tedtalks 17:16
17:18

We interpret what we see,

tedtalks 17:18
17:20

select the most workable

tedtalks 17:20
17:22

of the multiple choices.

tedtalks 17:22
17:24

We live entirely by the imposition

tedtalks 17:24
17:26

of a narrative line

tedtalks 17:26
17:28

upon disparate images,

tedtalks 17:28
17:31

by the idea with which we have learned to freeze

tedtalks 17:31
17:33

the shifting phantasmagoria,

tedtalks 17:33
17:36

which is our actual experience."

tedtalks 17:38
17:40

The story Americans tell,

tedtalks 17:40
17:42

the story upon which

tedtalks 17:42
17:44

the American dream depends,

tedtalks 17:44
17:47

is the story of limitless choice.

tedtalks 17:47
17:49

This narrative

tedtalks 17:49
17:51

promises so much:

tedtalks 17:51
17:53

freedom, happiness,

tedtalks 17:53
17:55

success.

tedtalks 17:55
17:58

It lays the world at your feet and says,

tedtalks 17:58
18:01

"You can have anything, everything."

tedtalks 18:02
18:04

It's a great story,

tedtalks 18:04
18:06

and it's understandable why they would be reluctant

tedtalks 18:06
18:09

to revise it.

tedtalks 18:09
18:11

But when you take a close look,

tedtalks 18:11
18:13

you start to see the holes,

tedtalks 18:13
18:15

and you start to see that the story

tedtalks 18:15
18:18

can be told in many other ways.

tedtalks 18:18
18:20

Americans have so often tried to

tedtalks 18:20
18:23

disseminate their ideas of choice,

tedtalks 18:23
18:26

believing that they will be, or ought to be,

tedtalks 18:26
18:29

welcomed with open hearts and minds.

tedtalks 18:29
18:32

But the history books and the daily news tell us

tedtalks 18:32
18:35

it doesn't always work out that way.

tedtalks 18:35
18:37

The phantasmagoria,

tedtalks 18:37
18:39

the actual experience that we try to understand

tedtalks 18:39
18:42

and organize through narrative,

tedtalks 18:42
18:45

varies from place to place.

tedtalks 18:45
18:47

No single narrative serves the needs

tedtalks 18:47
18:50

of everyone everywhere.

tedtalks 18:51
18:54

Moreover, Americans themselves

tedtalks 18:54
18:57

could benefit from incorporating

tedtalks 18:57
19:00

new perspectives into their own narrative,

tedtalks 19:00
19:02

which has been driving their choices

tedtalks 19:02
19:05

for so long.

tedtalks 19:05
19:08

Robert Frost once said that,

tedtalks 19:08
19:11

"It is poetry that is lost in translation."

tedtalks 19:12
19:14

This suggests that

tedtalks 19:14
19:16

whatever is beautiful and moving,

tedtalks 19:16
19:19

whatever gives us a new way to see,

tedtalks 19:19
19:21

cannot be communicated to those

tedtalks 19:21
19:24

who speak a different language.

tedtalks 19:24
19:26

But Joseph Brodsky said that,

tedtalks 19:26
19:28

"It is poetry

tedtalks 19:28
19:30

that is gained in translation,"

tedtalks 19:30
19:32

suggesting that translation

tedtalks 19:32
19:34

can be a creative,

tedtalks 19:34
19:37

transformative act.

tedtalks 19:37
19:39

When it comes to choice,

tedtalks 19:39
19:42

we have far more to gain than to lose

tedtalks 19:42
19:45

by engaging in the many

tedtalks 19:45
19:48

translations of the narratives.

tedtalks 19:48
19:50

Instead of replacing

tedtalks 19:50
19:52

one story with another,

tedtalks 19:52
19:54

we can learn from and revel in

tedtalks 19:54
19:57

the many versions that exist

tedtalks 19:57
20:00

and the many that have yet to be written.

tedtalks 20:00
20:03

No matter where we're from

tedtalks 20:03
20:05

and what your narrative is,

tedtalks 20:05
20:07

we all have a responsibility

tedtalks 20:07
20:09

to open ourselves up to a wider array

tedtalks 20:09
20:12

of what choice can do,

tedtalks 20:12
20:15

and what it can represent.

tedtalks 20:15
20:17

And this does not lead to

tedtalks 20:17
20:20

a paralyzing moral relativism.

tedtalks 20:20
20:22

Rather, it teaches us when

tedtalks 20:22
20:24

and how to act.

tedtalks 20:24
20:26

It brings us that much closer

tedtalks 20:26
20:29

to realizing the full potential of choice,

tedtalks 20:29
20:31

to inspiring the hope

tedtalks 20:31
20:33

and achieving the freedom

tedtalks 20:33
20:35

that choice promises

tedtalks 20:35
20:37

but doesn't always deliver.

tedtalks 20:37
20:40

If we learn to speak to one another,

tedtalks 20:40
20:43

albeit through translation,

tedtalks 20:43
20:45

then we can begin to see choice

tedtalks 20:45
20:47

in all its strangeness,

tedtalks 20:47
20:50

complexity

tedtalks 20:50
20:52

and compelling beauty.

tedtalks 20:52
20:54

Thank you.

tedtalks 20:54
21:05

(Applause)

tedtalks 21:05
21:08

Bruno Giussani: Thank you.

tedtalks 21:08
21:11

Sheena, there is a detail about your biography

tedtalks 21:11
21:13

that we have not written in the program book.

tedtalks 21:13
21:16

But by now it's evident to everyone in this room. You're blind.

tedtalks 21:16
21:19

And I guess one of the questions on everybody's mind is:

tedtalks 21:19
21:22

How does that influence your study of choosing

tedtalks 21:22
21:24

because that's an activity

tedtalks 21:24
21:27

that for most people is associated with visual inputs

tedtalks 21:27
21:30

like aesthetics and color and so on?

tedtalks 21:31
21:33

Sheena Iyengar: Well, it's funny that you should ask that

tedtalks 21:33
21:36

because one of the things that's interesting about being blind

tedtalks 21:36
21:38

is you actually get a different vantage point

tedtalks 21:38
21:40

when you observe the way

tedtalks 21:40
21:42

sighted people make choices.

tedtalks 21:42
21:44

And as you just mentioned, there's lots of choices out there

tedtalks 21:44
21:46

that are very visual these days.

tedtalks 21:46
21:48

Yeah, I -- as you would expect --

tedtalks 21:48
21:50

get pretty frustrated by choices

tedtalks 21:50
21:52

like what nail polish to put on

tedtalks 21:52
21:54

because I have to rely on what other people suggest.

tedtalks 21:54
21:56

And I can't decide.

tedtalks 21:56
21:58

And so one time I was in a beauty salon,

tedtalks 21:58
22:01

and I was trying to decide between two very light shades of pink.

tedtalks 22:01
22:03

And one was called "Ballet Slippers."

tedtalks 22:03
22:06

And the other one was called "Adorable."

tedtalks 22:06
22:08

(Laughter)

tedtalks 22:08
22:10

And so I asked these two ladies,

tedtalks 22:10
22:12

and the one lady told me, "Well, you should definitely wear 'Ballet Slippers.'"

tedtalks 22:12
22:14

"Well, what does it look like?"

tedtalks 22:14
22:16

"Well, it's a very elegant shade of pink."

tedtalks 22:16
22:18

"Okay, great."

tedtalks 22:18
22:20

The other lady tells me to wear "Adorable."

tedtalks 22:20
22:22

"What does it look like?"

tedtalks 22:22
22:25

"It's a glamorous shade of pink."

tedtalks 22:26
22:28

And so I asked them, "Well, how do I tell them apart?

tedtalks 22:28
22:30

What's different about them?"

tedtalks 22:30
22:32

And they said, "Well, one is elegant, the other one's glamorous."

tedtalks 22:32
22:34

Okay, we got that.

tedtalks 22:34
22:36

And the only thing they had consensus on:

tedtalks 22:36
22:38

well, if I could see them, I would

tedtalks 22:38
22:40

clearly be able to tell them apart.

tedtalks 22:40
22:42

(Laughter)

tedtalks 22:42
22:45

And what I wondered was whether they were being affected

tedtalks 22:45
22:47

by the name or the content of the color,

tedtalks 22:47
22:50

so I decided to do a little experiment.

tedtalks 22:50
22:53

So I brought these two bottles of nail polish into the laboratory,

tedtalks 22:53
22:55

and I stripped the labels off.

tedtalks 22:55
22:57

And I brought women into the laboratory,

tedtalks 22:57
22:59

and I asked them, "Which one would you pick?"

tedtalks 22:59
23:02

50 percent of the women accused me of playing a trick,

tedtalks 23:02
23:04

of putting the same color nail polish

tedtalks 23:04
23:06

in both those bottles.

tedtalks 23:06
23:08

(Laughter)

tedtalks 23:08
23:12

(Applause)

tedtalks 23:12
23:15

At which point you start to wonder who the trick's really played on.

tedtalks 23:15
23:18

Now, of the women that could tell them apart,

tedtalks 23:18
23:21

when the labels were off, they picked "Adorable,"

tedtalks 23:21
23:23

and when the labels were on,

tedtalks 23:23
23:26

they picked "Ballet Slippers."

tedtalks 23:26
23:28

So as far as I can tell,

tedtalks 23:28
23:30

a rose by any other name

tedtalks 23:30
23:32

probably does look different

tedtalks 23:32
23:35

and maybe even smells different.

tedtalks 23:35
23:38

BG: Thank you. Sheena Iyengar. Thank you Sheena.

tedtalks 23:38
23:46

(Applause)