Sheena Iyengar for Columbia Business School's Ideas at Work: How Choice Failed Us

Andrew Young — December 14, 2016

Last week, Network member Sheena Iyengar shared insights from the science of choice relevant to the 2016 U.S. presidential election for Columbia Business School’s Ideas at Work publication. In particular, Iyengar seeks to answer the question, “did choice fail us in this election?”

Iyengar uses the piece to examine the role of choice in Trump’s election, from the Republican primaries when Trump faced 16 other opponents, to a general election between two of the least popular candidates in history:

“A number of studies by social scientists, including Simona Botti, Ann McGill, and myself, have shown that we have a much harder time choosing amongst options that we don’t like than options we do. The reason for this, simply put, is that when we’re choosing amongst desirable options, our job is fun: we get to identify the one that’s the best. We add up the pros and cons of each option and pick the one with the highest score.

But when we’re choosing amongst undesirable options, the entire process turns laborious. When faced with adding up all the cons and deciding which option we think is less bad, we’re demotivated. Instead of comparing our choices, we direct our energy instead to resentment and frustration. We complain endlessly about the choices themselves.

And this complaining feels great when it’s part of a chorus of complaints. Recall how much solidarity there was between Americans and the media about how awful our choices were and how little attention was given to the differences — albeit cons — between those options. Now, we’re left scratching our heads and asking to be reminded: what do we know about the first 100 days of the winner, again?”

She concludes with a consideration of the move from too many choices to too few choices, as well as the widely option to not choose (or, in this case, vote): “After the election, which saw the lowest voter turnout in 20 years, this was what I heard, to my surprise, from so many people: they were proud to have abstained from voting. These were the Americans who spent their energy, during the days leading up to the choice, wishing the choice away instead of doing the work of making a difficult decision.

Ultimately, I’m not trying to say what was the right or the wrong choice. The way choice failed us here was first too much and then too little, causing us to lose track of how, or perhaps even why, we choose.

As modern citizens of democracies, we are free to choose and free not to choose. But either choice leaves us equally complicit in the final outcome, and failing to reckon with that outcome looks less like an exercise of freedom than a rejection of freedom itself.”

Read more here.