Choice, Control and Our Narratives About the World

I just finished reading The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar, sent to me by the Hachette Group, which addresses how our minds deal with choice. It is a fascinating book and what it says about control (both perception of control and actual control) and about how we respond to choice has implications for thinking about a whole host of issues. The studies Igengar describes are fascinating and many of them reached conclusions that surprised her.

One of the things she talks about is the fact that the need for control is a powerful motivator for human beings. Being unable to exercise control is something that is “naturally unpleasant and stressful” for us. And we have a desire to choose that is innate; it is a natural drive that often operates independently of any concrete benefits. So strongly does it operate, that we tend to forget that choice “is not an unconditioned good.”

Given that one of studies that reached what seemed to Iyengar to be a counter-intuitive result was one involving religions. To her surprise, the author found that “members of more fundamental faiths,” which she defined on those that imposed many day-to-day regulations on their followers – i.e., limiting their freedom to choose, experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity, and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts.” As she explained, “[r]estrictions do not necessarily diminish a sense of control, and freedom to think and do as you please does not necessarily increase it. The resolution of this seeming paradox lies in the different narrative about the nature of the world – and our role in it – that are passed down from generation to generation.” While we all want and need a degree of control over our lives, as the author explains, how we understand control depends on a number of things, including “the beliefs we come to hold.”

I think we often treat “control” and “personal choice” and “choice” and “freedom” as thought they are synonymous. (I think it may be that this is something that makes the concept of free will difficult for many people.) But as Iyengar’s findings suggest, although one possibility is to “believe that control comes solely through the exercise of personal choice,” for very many, it is making the choice to live in accordance with one’s belief in God that is the path toward ultimate happiness. Living in a society that seems to suggest that autonomous choice is a paramount good, this is a good reminder.

There is much else that is worthwhile in this book and I’ve dog-earred a number of pages for further thought. Some of that may be reflected in later posts.