Reflections on Choice

Over the past few months, I have enjoyed listening to the Hidden Brain podcast, hosted by Shankar Vedantam. The podcast self-purportedly uses “science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.” I highly recommend downloading and listening to podcast episode here; it is so informative and thought-provoking. So much so that I had to do a blog post about it!

Their most recent episode, dated March 4, 2020, explores choice and the relationships between choice, happiness and control. The guest expert being interviewed was Dr. Sheena Iyengar, esteemed author, professor and psychologist. According to Dr. Iyengar, choice-making serves at least 3 key functions:

  1. Autonomy – making choices is crucial for having a sense of control and–when it comes to making choices for oneself–autonomy. This seems to crucially important for disenfranchised populations such as behaviorally troubled youth, or the elderly living in long-term care. As the transtheoretical theory of change suggests, having choice is also an important catalyst to actual behavioral change.
  2. Learning – A fundamental tenet of the experimental method, and more specifically, operant conditioning. Learning is powerfully encoded through trial-and-error or trial-and-success.
  3. Imaginative expansion – Dr. Iyengar maintains that choice is not simply about making an intention actionable in the world. Choice is also an imaginative faculty–to choose is to imagine. In everyday parlance, the act of making a choice not only forecloses concurrent possibilities (i.e., I am going to take X path, so not Y, Z) but simultaneously engineers a labyrinth of future possibilities. Choosing is a generative act, availing us to more (or at least deeper) possibilities than were originally available.

Dr. Iyengar also comments on sociohistorical and cultural influences on the choices we make and the choices we value. In Western society, having personal choice is equated with autonomy, while giving choice to others is consistent with egalitarianism and democratic forms of justice. Another important value that is culturally selected by democratic processes is individualism–or the desire to express and shape our own identities in relation to our situation, others, and our future. Our identity is largely shaped by our modes of productivity; Dr. Iyengar cites research in the workplace which suggest a correlation between the ability to make choices and self-reports of happiness and even physiological measures of health. Indeed, decades of research (1,2) support the hypothesis that both our sense of perceived control and job stressors correlate with self-reported satisfaction and health outcomes. However, Dr. Iyengar’s own cross-cultural research demonstrates that the Western value set which associates personal choice with intrinsic motivation, persistence, satisfaction and quality of performance does not necessarily hold true for Eastern/Asian (presumably collectivist) cultures. She found, for example, that in her Asian sample, the participants performed better, persisted longer, derived more satisfaction and rated more intrinsic motivation for activities that were chosen by someone else (i.e., a person they trusted) versus activities the participants chose for themselves. Dr. Iyengar proposes that we rethink the Western paradigm when applying choice theory to different contexts and cultures. We can broadly conceptualize an apparent dichotomy of choosing in terms of fate vs. destiny.

Fate is commonly conceived as an impersonal, supernatural or cosmological set of forces that move us through–as objects–through the world. One may have the illusion of subjectivity, choice and free will but ultimately, our path has been set into motion and we are along for the ride. On the other hand, destiny is a Romantic notion suggesting we have the ability–if not a moral obligation–to choose, or author, our own personal narrative and history upon the world. Westernized thinking apparently expresses a collective preference for destiny over fate while the converse may be true within Eastern or collectivist cultures. Dr. Iyengar provides a paragon exemplar through discussing two types of marriage: arranged and romantic. She argues that these unions do not simply differ along the axis of personal choice but instead reflect categorically distinct value systems. The Western/romantic model favors personal decision-making by virtue of its adjacency with freedom, identity and wellbeing. In fact, these value associations are so powerful within this cultural milieu that to deprive a person of their choosing is to correspondingly devalue their freedom, identity and wellbeing. In contrast, the Eastern/collectivist model privileges choices based upon authority/experience/seniority, history and harmony with the greater social/civic order. Marriages, in this context, are institutions carefully constructed by respected people in authority in order to honor the past and preserve order into the future.

Dr. Iyengar is an advocate of choice. Interestingly, her earlier work (1, 2) identified a negative corollary of choice–decision-making requires significant cognitive resources and can contribute to decision-making fatigue. Ironically, the fatigue brought about by choosing may result in an impaired sense of confidence and competence pertaining to those very choices we make. Sadly, this is our contemporary reality. The coronavirus pandemic and physical distancing has required many of us to readjust our daily routines and rhythms. To deviate from these automated practices require us to consciously and continuously engage in future-oriented decisions–choosing what to do next. This daily task of selecting from an array of unstructured possibilities can easily lead to decreased productivity and increased feelings of fatigue and anxiety. We may thrive on having an optimal range of ‘choosability’: having too little choice may deprive us of autonomy, decision-making skills, and imaginative capacity for the future while having a surplus of choice may lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making and anxiety about the future.

As earlier mentioned, choice seems to be an important precondition for commitment to behavioral change. Simply put, it is hard to change our patterns without some motivational force. Absent coercion, this force is usually an internal force of will, or choice. But if choice serves to alter potentialities and create futures, it also commits us in often predictable ways. As Iyengar’s own work shows, our choices are often predictable and based on certain cognitive and social biases we all possess. Choice is therefore an interesting dynamism between change and stability.

But are there even more subtle (i..e, systemic) constrictions to choice? Is choosing–such a cherished fixture of personal identity–also a form of discipline that enacts its control upon us as subjects? Capitalist culture is predicated upon a consumer base that drives the economy. Our contemporary economy strongly privileges the philosophy of a curated self. By having access to an umpteen variety of products and services that can be infinitely varied through combinations, a dominant discourse emerges which presupposes that our ‘self’ is best expressed through our signature of consumer choices. If our choices serve both psychological and market functions–there will exist significant psychological and economic forces which operate to constrain or ‘choose’ our choices for us. I can list 4 such mechanisms or forces operating within the market:

  1. Predictive analytics: Past choice predicts present. We are all familiar with the vast amount of personal data that is harvested by algorithms in the sites we visit and the software we download. This information is used to deliver more choices to us, but often circumscribed around our previous activity. The fact that this practice is so ubiquitous and lucrative should give us an indication of its effectiveness.
  2. Behavioral economics: Also known as ‘benevolent paternalism‘, the ideology behind these set of practices and policies is to architect the environment in ways that make socially or politically desirable choices more accessible, convenient and frictionless for the consumer while making less desirable choices inaccessible, inconvenient and costly. There is moderate support for this approach across both public and private contexts. If the idea of guiding consumer choice does not immediately convey moral repugnance, it may at least follow passage down a dystopian slope where choices are engineered for us by a benevolent but authoritarian regime which rewards conformity and severely punishes social dissonance.
  3. Iterative repositioning: Similar to predictive analytics (where past choice is used to determine present and future choices) however this is less of a mechanism and more of a process by which our choices tend to converge towards a context in which the products we choose, the places we go and the people we interact become increasingly homogenous. People, places and things that create discord with our ‘signature’ selves move to the periphery of our social, environmental and economic activities. There are truly dystopian realities here as well.
  4. Comparative valuation: We are social beings and the desirability of a consumer choice is often determined by its ability to enhance our social status. Not many people want to be considered iconoclastic or a pariah. But as Dr. Iyengar observes, neither do we want to be too conformist in striving to express our own individual destiny. Our choices therefore are often mitigated within a zone of influence that is positioned between conformity and the bizarre. Here the irony is that the choices which we believe to express our unique identities are largely determined by impersonal social and cultural preferences. Out of many, the one.

Having the ability to make choices is clearly important for our social and psychological composure. Yet our choices are also largely governed by psychological and social (fatalistic?) forces, which belie certain dystopian realities. Choosing is, at its root, a dilemma.

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