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The Choices Before Us: Can Fewer Options Lead To Better Decisions?

Klaus Vedfelt
Getty Images

To many people, an abundance of options is a good thing, a symbol of freedom and control. Youget to choose whether to spend your Saturday at a movie or a baseball game. You decide whether to try the new restaurant down the block, or to stay in and cook. It's your call whether to take the job with higher pay, or the one with the better work-life balance.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has eliminated these and other options that we used to take for granted. And for many of us, this sudden contraction of choice has been a struggle.

This week on Hidden Brain, we talk with Sheena Iyengar, professor of psychology at Columbia Business School. In her research, Sheena has explored how people respond to an abundance of options, and how culture shapes the way we think about choice. She says the pandemic has forced her to focus on the choices that are most important to make each day.

"It gives you a greater recognition of what you really have in your control and what things you really don't have as much control over," she says.

Additional resources:

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, 2011.

"When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?" by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,2000.

"Rethinking the value of choice: A cultural perspective on intrinsic motivation," by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,1999.

"Tragic Choices: Autonomy and Emotional Responses to Medical Decisions," by Simona Botti, Kristina Orfali, and Sheena Iyengar, Journal of Consumer Research,2009.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz, 2009.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Lushik Wahba
Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.