PRIMING & THE VALUE OF CHOICE
In Chapter five on page 167, “I, Robot?” Iyengar describes how the concept of priming affects how we make choices. Priming is defined by Crisp & Turner as “activating a specific attitude, for example a stereotype, can exert an influence on people’s subsequent behaviour.” (C&T, p. 388) In both the text and lecture, priming is associated with a key factor of the attitude-behaviour relationship; attitude accessibility - a person’s private or public self-awareness. It can be thought of as the extent to which private or public attitudes are more or less accessible. It is also associated with how we store and categorize information in our minds. The availability heuristic claims that the easier it is for something to come to mind, the more likely it is that it will affect our behaviour. (K, Oct.4) Iyengar compliments this on page 167 “Our minds don’t organize stored information alphabetically or chronologically or by the Dewey decimal system but rather by its web of association to other information. As a result, being exposed to a particular piece of information also makes it easier to recall related information…Just as often, though, the associations come unbidden in response to some experience in our lives. Something that activates these automatic associations is known as a ‘prime,’ and its effect on our mental states and subsequent choices is known as ‘priming.’” (I, p.167)
Priming directly targets the automatic system of categorization in our minds. Advertising, social networking, and other external factors that try to influence our choices would not be effective without priming. Priming causes us to unconsciously refer to the raw data we have in our mind – it is the search engine in the unconscious mind that makes automatic connections between what is stored in your mind and what is relative to the stimulus that is presented. This is one of the most powerful methods to effect how and why people make choices because it is directly connected to the part of our mind that we cannot control – the unconscious. Our mind operates beyond our control on two levels, one that is conscious and reflective and one that is unconscious and automatic. The information that cannot be stored in our reflective systems is stored in our automatic systems, where we unconsciously make connections to this information.
Iyengar acknowledges the relationship between the social psychological self and choice on page 168, “Priming can have pervasive effects on our moods, perceptions and choices.” (I, p.168) Priming takes greatest effect when it is subtle, because if it causes us to go against our values, it will create cognitive dissonance. If it is too strong, it will be immediately recognized as a threat and it will be avoided. What Iyengar says next is somewhat frightening, “On the other hand, even though our core values and attitudes are relatively safe from subconscious influences, the same can’t always be said for the way we act out that core. The automatic system doesn’t distinguish between incidental choices and highly consequential ones when forming and acting on associations, meaning that even the most important choices in our lives can be influence in ways that run counter to our expressed preferences.” (I, p.169) In other words, our unconscious mind does not always recognize the importance and the consequence of choice, and is highly susceptible to external influence. This leads to contradiction about the nature of choice and how people actually make choices. We perceive choice to be a personal and internal process as this is ingrained in the way we think. We perceive being able to choose freely as having the ability to control our own lives, by responding to our innate desires and preferences. Choices are evidently not always an internal and person decision if they can be affected by extraneous factors. Choice, even though it is an inherent and basic desire, is sometimes overwhelming and we cannot avoid external influence.
The Value of Choice
If choice can be affected by primes, it is important to understand how choice is valued. The value of choice comes from our ability to perceive differences between things that are not all that different. The process of choosing can be confusing, difficult, constraining and even suffocating. This is ironic because having the ability to choose is symbolic to freedom. However, choice is not viewed the same by all. Choice can represent the opposite for people who are not conditioned to choose and are insufficiently prepared to make independent choices. Choice is more attractive in theory than in practice which Iyengar made clear in her interviewing of Eastern Europeans on page 66 of Chapter two, ‘ A stranger in strange lands.’ Iyengar interviewed residents of formerly communist countries and quickly discovered that Eastern Europeans were culture shocked by choice. When some of the respondents were asked what images or words they associate with choice, some described choice as fear, dilemma, too much, unnecessary, and artificial. North Americans however, are trained to spot insignificant and minute differences among our options. We value choice so much that we believe that we should be able to have limitless choice at all times. Limitless choice actually leads to discrepancies among the choices we make because we tend to over analyze the abundant options and are inevitably affected by the external influences that surround us.
CULTURAL INFLUENCE: COLLECTIVIST AND INDIVIDUALIST
A culture’s view of choice affects task performance, decision-making, and ultimately an individual’s happiness. Iyengar brings to light the ways in which geography, religion politics, and demographics shape the way people perceive themselves and their individual role within society. “The stories of our lives, told differently in every culture and every home, have profound implications for what and why we choose, and it is only by learning how to understand these stories that we can begin to account for the wonderful and baffling differences among us.” (I,p.29) No two cultures are the same and each culture prides itself on being different in its values, ideas, and practices. These differences can be measured by the degree of individualism or collectivism.
People who grow up in individualist societies have a fixation on the self or the “I.” In his book Individualism and Collectivism, Harry Triandis notes that individualists “are primarily motivated by their own preferences, needs, rights, and the contracts they have established with others” and “give priority to their personal goals over the goals of others” (I,p.31) This perspective is predominant in North American culture, where the individual is taught from childhood that he or she must be able to determine their own path in order to explore all that life has to offer in terms of freedoms and opportunities. Americans pride themselves on choice. They hold three fundamental beliefs about choice: if choice affects you, you should be the one to make it, the more choices you have the more likely you are the make the best choice, and you must never say NO to choice. The American Dream is quite simply a narrative of limitless choice. This paradigm denies any notion of interdependence and fails to acknowledge individual fallibility. The focus on choice being a personal and individual act is so over exaggerated that it becomes easy to lose sight of the value of this freedom and it has the reverse effect of freedom. Ironically, we become suffocated by choice.
On page 32 Iyengar makes reference to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) assertion that people are ruled by capitalism – “each person pursued his own economic self-interest, society as a whole would benefit as if guided by an invisible hand.” (I,p.32) Essentially, the central focus of individualism is how one perceives choices in terms of what kind of opportunities the choice could open new doors to. This way of thinking not only guides the people, but it structures the society as well. Iyengar describes how we become suffocated by our own freedom of choice on page 32, “This way of thinking has become so ingrained that we rarely pause to consider that it may not be a universally shared ideal – that we may not always want to make choices, or that some people prefer to have their choices prescribed by another. But in fact the construct of individualism is a relatively new one that guides the thinking of only a small percentage of the world’s population.” (I,p.32) Individuals who were brought up in individualist societies see choice as a fundamental necessity of life, like food, water, or shelter. It does not occur to some people that freedom choice is nonexistent in most of the world outside of our North American “me” culture.
Meanwhile, the notion of “we” is highly valued in decision making in collectivist societies, like Japan. Members of individualist societies perceive themselves as a part of a group and, according to Harry Triandis, are “primarily motivated by the norms of, and duties imposed by, those collectives” and “are willing to give priority to the goals of these collectives over their own personal goals” emphasizing above all else “their connectedness to members of these collectives.” (I,p.32) Basically, people who were raised with a collectivist mentality are more concerned about the welfare of the greater good, as opposed to their personal happiness and success being first priority. Iyengar gives a great example of the collectivist mentality on page 33 when she quotes the Japanese saying “makeru ga kachi” which literally translates to “to lose is to win.” (I,p.33) Japanese people think that maintaining social order through peace and harmony is far more important than everyone getting their own way. The people who are members of these societies identify themselves through social in-groups as opposed to obtaining personal identity through individualism.
Even though Iyengar tends to focus on the self-serving ideals of individualism, she does not fail to take note of the economic differences in individualist and collectivist cultures. “Greater wealth is associated with greater individualism at all levels, whether we compare nations by GDP, or blue-collar and upper-middle-class Americans by annual income. Higher population density is associated with collectivism, as living in close proximity to others requires more restrictions on behaviour in order to keep the peace.” (I,p.35) Not only under the lens of capitalism do individualist societies flourish, but in terms of education, resource and opportunity as well. Iyengar makes a connection between individualism, prosperity, and education on page 35 “greater exposure to other cultures and higher levels of education are both associated with individualism, so cities aren’t necessarily more collectivist than rural areas.” (I,p.35) Sheena Iyengar also acknowledge that people’s degree of collectivism or individualism changes as they develop through the lifecycle, “People become slightly more collectivist with age as they develop more numerous and strong relationships with others, and just as important, they become more set in their views over time, meaning they will be less affected than the younger generations by broad cultural changes. All these factors, not to mention personality and incidental experiences in life, combine and interact to determine each person’s position on the individualism-collectivism spectrum.” (I,p.36)
Iyengar’s study on page 47 is particularly interesting because it can be related to cognitive dissonance, priming, and cultural influences. When Iyengar was a graduate student, she collaborated with her advisor to observe how young children absorb different ideas about choice from around the world and behaves accordingly. The respondents were Anglo-American and Asian-American children. The children were assigned randomly to groups and were shown the anagrams and coloured markers by their teacher, Mrs. Smith. The first group of children was allowed to choose the category of anagrams and the colour of marker with which to write the answers. The second group of children was assigned what anagram and what colour marker they would be using. The third group of children was told that their mothers had been consulted and had given instructions to work on the animal anagrams and use blue marker. The Anglo-American children were shocked and even embarrassed when they discovered the teacher had talked to their mothers. The Anglo-American children did two and a half times the number of anagrams when they got to choose freely. Meanwhile, the Asian-American children performed best when they believe their mothers chose for them. This study of Anglo-American and Asian-American children is relative to cognitive dissonance in the sense that first generation children were greatly affected by their parents. They connected what their parents told them with forming community. This is most likely a child of a collectivist upbringing such as in Asian cultures. If the children had defied what their mothers had said, they would have experienced cognitive dissonance. Priming takes effect here in the sense that the children’s attitudes could be measured by how much influence their mother has on them. The productivity and willingness of the child to please their mothers predicted their results when they believed their mothers were involved. Meanwhile, the Anglo-American children’s reluctance when they found out their mothers had been consulted, is an indicator of how they would perform in the study.
Sheena Iyengar’s representation of choice and humanity is intriguing, thought provoking and revolutionary. This book is not necessarily controversial, because it is logical and explorative. The only critique that can be made is that Iyengar favours exploration over conclusion. The book is somewhat open ended and offers few explicit lessons. Iyengar admits that choice is an innate and basic desire that lives inside every human being. However, humans also have a strong desire to create meaning – nobody wants to live a life without meaning, which would leave nothing to mark their existence on Earth. Choice is used as an instrument behind meaning; therefore they are interconnected and simultaneous. Humans use choice definitively to construct our identities and our choices are determined by the meanings we select as the driving force behind them. In the prologue of the book, Iyengar provides seven truths about choices that we can use to navigate how we make meaningful choices, the last one being the most powerful as it reiterates the title of the book: “balancing hopes, desires, and an appreciation of the possibilities with a clear-eyed assessment of the limitations: that is the art of choosing.” (I, p. 277)
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