Decision-making, Categorization, and Jobs

Posted on January 28, 2012 by


Sheena Iyengar.

Hopefully some day that’s a name that doesn’t need much explaining in the same way I don’t need to explain Michael Jordan or Albert Einstein.

But if you don’t know her, she’s a social psychology professor at Columbia University.

And she’s Indian.

And she’s blind.

She was speaking in promotion of her book “The Art of Choosing.”  She said that we as Americans had too much choice;  too much choice sapped any kind of decision-making, led to less sales (bad for businesses), sapped creativity.  The take-home point was that we needed to cut down on choices we needed to make.

The principle of cutting down on choices isn’t anything new, some might even nonchalantly say “common sense” and something most people know at an unconscious level, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t really adhere to that. She made the point that our choices weren’t really made in isolation reflecting what we “really want”; we make a lot of our choices as expressions, statements to other people in and around us.

To explain that point, she gave us an anecdotal story about her husband and an iPhone.  For weeks on end, her husband had been clamoring for a black iPhone.  He named off all the reasons to get one:  it wouldn’t be stained so easily, he was tired of the white color of Apple products, etc. etc.

Then, when the iPhone was about to be released Sheena was at standing in line for this new iPhone, the black iPhone.  She’d woken up at 3 AM to stand in line for this. When the doors opened, People starting rushing out of the store, mostly getting sleek new black iPhones.

When she was about to make a purchase for the black iPhone, her husband rushed and told her to change the order:  he now wanted a white iPhone.


Because everyone else was getting black!  He’d wanted this white iPhone not because he’d really wanted it, but because he wanted to express his difference, as Sheena interpreted it.  Her point was that he didn’t make this choice isolated in a cave divorced from society, he made it after seeing lots of people get black iPhones.

We make a lot of our choices based on what other people do.  She cited studies of people ordering drinks and food at various restaurants.  The only people who were really happy with their choices were the ones who’d ordered first;  they usually got what they want.  The people ordering behind them were less happy because they usually changed their orders.  However, if no one knew what choices they made, people tended to choose the same thing;  were copycats without knowing it, and strangely enough if we do know it, it seems as if we don’t want to make things known, and to switch things up.

Anecdote About Categorization

Sheena had a moment of insight while in Russia doing some experiments with Russian grad students.

When she was talking about this story, I had an insight of my own on a hypothesis of hiring decisions.

She’d offered up a host of drinks to the grad students:  Diet Coke, Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, Mountain Dew, etc.  A student replied that there wasn’t much variety to the drinks.  To us as Americans, that might seem shocking “there’s all those drinks”, but to him, there were all just one thing:  soda.  As one category, soda, for the student there was no need for further elaboration or investigation of difference between the varieties of soda, it was just all simply soda, and presumably didn’t want any part of it.

This made me think about the middle managers, HR people, whatever faced with doing the hiring in Devah Pager’s work. They had lots of choices to make.

We haven’t really gotten their perspective of their hiring practices, but what we have gotten so far is the results of their choices: Pager found that black applicants with no criminal background were no more likely to be hired than a white applicant with identical qualifications and a criminal background.

The choices these hiring people made had/have consequences for the larger society: likely, racial stratification and ghettoization of people to certain jobs and social positions.

I thought about the Russian anecdote. The grad student had one category for a group of something that he didn’t necessarily like. Meanwhile, as Americans we made all kinds of distinctions, and didn’t even realize it.

Taking that Russian anecdote, I wonder if people doing the hiring for these firms saw black applicants the same way as the Russian grad student saw the drinks as just soda. I wonder if a lot of these people doing the hiring simply saw black applicants as simply “blacks” and unconsciously relied on stereotypes of work ethic to form their opinion of black applicants. Meanwhile, assuming that most of these people were white, saw white applicants as part of their in-groups without really noticing. As a result, they made more distinctions of their characteristics, and didn’t realize it; they saw more individual personalities, and uniqueness to them, and ended up more than likely hiring them.

Thoughts in Progress…