The Art of Choosing (thoughts)
I’m really choosy about accepting review copies these days…my average is probably less than one a month. But there were three things that made me happy to accept Dr. Sheena Iyengar*‘s offer of her book The Art of Choosing. First, it’s popular nueroscience/psychology (really, more of the latter, but before I read it I thought it would be more of the former), which regular readers will know is one of my favourite things to read. Second, Dr. Atul Gawande, who I discovered last year and now adore, was one of the blurbs in the e-mail. And finally, it has the best book trailer I’ve seen:
Doesn’t that make you want to read the book?! That being said, I was still a bit nervous when I opened it up. I wasn’t impressed with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and he was the other blurb on the back cover. But then I saw the table of contents, with chapter titles like “Senses and Sensibility” and “Lord of the Things,” and I began to relax. Turning another page, I saw that the prologue began with a Joseph Campbell quote, one of my favourites: “Everything begins with a story.” And then I began to grin. This was going to be my kind of book.
And let’s just get this out of the way upfront: I adored this book. Every page was a delight, and I often brought it into the hot tub with me as my pre-bedtime reading when I was down in San Antonio. Because even though it’s full of intelligence and scientific rigour, it’s also full of humour and stories and writing that draws you along. This is what popular science should be: informative and inspiring.
One of my favourite aspects of the book is that Dr. Iyengar goes into such detail when describing her experiments! It’s such a walk through the scientific process, with its progress and set backs. And just goes to show that the ‘soft’ sciences are no less valid. ;) In one of her studies, she looked at the impact of ‘too much choice’ via jams in a British grocery story known for its over-the-top inventory (they stocked over 300 jam flavours). Two her of students ran a tasting booth that switched between offering a mere 6 flavours and 24. Once the potential customers had tasted as much as they wanted, they were given a coupon they could use to get a dollar off any of the jams. The barcode of the coupon tracked whether those exposed to more or fewer flavours went on to actually buy jam. Isn’t that brilliant?! There are all sorts of neat experiments in here, and she’s careful to spell out her controls. It makes for fun reading!
Another thing I loved was the book’s breadth. Dr. Iyengar looks at the fashion industry, children, the ethics of patient v. doctor choice, arranged v. non-arranged marriage, how friends order at a restaurant, and more. She devotes enough time to each topic for me to be grounded, but it was so neat to see how choice plays out in different realms of human life. Dr. Iyengar also brings her awareness of different cultures (her parents were Sikh immigrants, and Dr. Iyengar herself is blind, both of which she discusses) to the book, which made it feel so rich. Oh, and she’s so smart! Not just in science-things, but in her references to literature and politics and everything else…it’s such a joy to read a book by an intelligent, perceptive person, don’t you think?
In case you couldn’t guess, I highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a glimmer of interest in the subject. And since the subject of The Art of Choosing is really about how human life plays out, should everyone be interested? If you haven’t watched the book trailer up above, please do so. And know that the book lives up to the trailer’s promise! (And if you’re participating in the Science Book Challenge 2010, this would be a great selection for it.)
Footnote One: I never know the etiquette behind referring to authors who also have PhDs (or M.D.s for that matter). What do y’all do?