Monday, October 6, 2014

Day 614: There is No Universal Version of Free Choice

But there should be.

First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It's called "being true to yourself." But do all individuals benefit from taking such an approach to choice? Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies in which we sought the answer to this very question. In one study, which we ran in Japantown, San Francisco, we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children into the laboratory, and we divided them up into three groups. 
The first group came in, and they were greeted by Miss Smith, who showed them six big piles of anagram puzzles. The kids got to choose which pile of anagrams they would like to do, and they even got to choose which marker they would write their answers with. When the second group of children came in, they were brought to the same room, shown the same anagrams, but this time Miss Smith told them which anagrams to do and which markers to write their answers with. Now when the third group came in, they were told that their anagrams and their markers had been chosen by their mothers. (Laughter) In reality, the kids who were told what to do, whether by Miss Smith or their mothers, were actually given the very same activity, which their counterparts in the first group had freely chosen.  
With this procedure, we were able to ensure that the kids across the three groups all did the same activity, making it easier for us to compare performance. Such small differences in the way we administered the activity yielded striking differences in how well they performed. Anglo-Americans, they did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them, as compared to when it was chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers. It didn't matter who did the choosing, if the task was dictated by another, their performance suffered. In fact, some of the kids were visibly embarrassed when they were told that their mothers had been consulted. (Laughter) One girl named Mary said, "You asked my mother?" 
In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice, second best when they chose for themselves, and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith. A girl named Natsumi even approached Miss Smith as she was leaving the room and tugged on her skirt and asked, "Could you please tell my mommy I did it just like she said?" The first-generation children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents' approach to choice. For them, choice was not just a way of defining and asserting their individuality, but a way to create community and harmony by deferring to the choices of people whom they trusted and respected. If they had a concept of being true to one's self, then that self, most likely, [was] composed, not of an individual, but of a collective. Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one's own preferences. Or, you could say that the individual's preferences were shaped by the preferences of specific others. 
The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others. When, in contrast, two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another's success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships. Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone. - Sheena Iyengar   

Essentially, we choose the way we choose because we were taught to choose that way. There is no "human nature" when it comes to choice - there is only nurture. 

Sheena's Talk has a number of other examples of how the nature of choice differs around the world from culture to culture. At the end she focuses more on the concept of options being linked strongly to the concept of free choice (mostly in USA, but the American culture is spreading quickly to the rest of the world so it may soon be a global perception) - for example, if you walk into a shop, the more products and variety of products available for purchase, the more free choice you have. What Sheena also mentions is that people tend to actually make worse decisions when there as more options to choose from in all aspects of life - so this really begs the question whether increased options are increasing free choice or restricting it? 

The more options we have to choose from, the less rational we become. We feel overwhelmed by the choices available to us and often end up not considering what the best choice is and end up choosing something that is noticeably inferior to the ideal (best) choice. The reality is that most of the chocies that we face in life are superficial and artificial. Here is another extract from the talk to contrast how some people see choice (compared to the American perspective of choice):

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard. "Oh, but it doesn't matter. It's all just soda. That's just one choice." (Murmuring) I was so struck by this comment that from then on, I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas, and I asked them, "How many choices are these?" Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda. When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices -- juice, water and soda. Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand. You know, research shows repeatedly that we can't actually tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Of course, you and I know that Coke is the better choice.  
For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is. Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better, and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters and so every choice matters. But for Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice before they could protest that they didn't know how to swim. When asked, "What words and images do you associate with choice?" Grzegorz from Warsaw said, "Ah, for me it is fear. There are some dilemmas you see. I am used to no choice." Bohdan from Kiev said, in response to how he felt about the new consumer marketplace, "It is too much. We do not need everything that is there." A sociologist from the Warsaw Survey Agency explained, "The older generation jumped from nothing to choice all around them. They were never given a chance to learn how to react." And Tomasz, a young Polish man said, "I don't need twenty kinds of chewing gum. I don't mean to say that I want no choice, but many of these choices are quite artificial." 
In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different. The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. Americans train their whole lives to play "spot the difference." They practice this from such an early age that they've come to believe that everyone must be born with this ability. In fact, though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don't all see choice in the same places or to the same extent. When someone can't see how one choice is unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating. Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It's not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae. In other words, choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents in America when it is thrust upon those who are insufficiently prepared for it. But it is not only other people in other places that are feeling the pressure of ever-increasing choice. Americans themselves are discovering that unlimited choice seems more attractive in theory than in practice. - Sheena Iyengar

So is it possible that our very self definition has become intertwined with our perceived available choices? Know thyself has become you are the products you choose.

Now consider another aspect: consider that in order to fulfill you fullest potential of free choice you need to be able to make whichever choice you desire. What if you can't afford to? Do the people who do not have the money to buy their free choice no longer have free choice? Does free choice exist in degrees of financial ability vs constraint? As with everything else in this world, your rights depend on how much money you have. 

Now at no point do I condone or agree with how the system works and how money is used to essentially enslave people - the way we have been defining living free choice is NOT real free choice. We have the illusion of free choice where we can buy lots of stuff (if you have enough money obviously) and keep ourselves busy with that. In the meantime, while you are distracted, the fate of the world and of every single person is being decided by only a few sources of power. The worst part is that each and every one of us consents to whatever is happening to and around us simply because we do not act to stop it or even declare that it is not acceptable. 

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