“The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

By Shawn Wicker, Manager – Client Services

Why this book matters?

As globalization continues to connect the world, market researchers continue to adapt their processes to adjust for cultural differences. Market researchers with a keen understanding of global cultural differences are now taking into consideration the choosing process, especially when conducting studies for companies that market products to consumers worldwide. This will allow market researchers to design better surveys that generate more accurate results, culminating in a better informed business decision.

Key Takeaways

In “The Art of Choosing,” Sheena Iyengar discusses the choosing process within the context of the two predominant culture types: collectivist and individualist. She categorizes collectivist cultures as “freedom to” societies and individualist cultures as “freedom from” societies, and she argues that the differences in culture types and individual experiences profoundly impact how people approach the choosing process.

Individualist cultures, like in the U.S. for example, value opportunity more than equality as they long for “freedom from” external constraints like the government, so they can enhance their position in life. Individualist cultures prefer more choice with less access, fostering a more competitive environment in which harder working, more talented people are rewarded, but there is equal opportunity to fail or succeed.

By contrast, collectivist cultures value equality more than opportunity as they long for the “freedom to” enjoy a sufficient standard of living. Collectivist cultures prefer less choice with the same access and tend to believe that more choice available to less people is unfair. At times, people from collectivist cultures even fear choice as they are used to it being outside of their control. This contradicts the notion of American consumerism. The author suggests that consumer perception of “true choice” in the marketplace resides in the middle of these two cultural positions.

Research Industry Implications

Respondents can interpret exercises and questions differently, so researchers need to be mindful of cultural differences when administering surveys and analyzing data to account for these differences in cultural background and individual experience. Americans assume that a new product in the marketplace is considered another choice, increasing the size of the choice set, but this might not hold true for collectivist cultures. As an example, the author references a research study in which subjects were asked to choose between seven sodas.  Americans perceived this as seven choices, but subjects from collectivist cultures perceived this as two choices: soda or not.  Small cultural nuances can have a large impact on marketing decisions.

With discrete choice experiments (in which respondents are forced to make tradeoffs between alternatives in order to determine preference) cultural nuances could skew the results as people approach the choosing process differently. For example, since respondents from collectivist cultures prefer fewer choices, if the discrete choice experiment intends to measure lots of attributes and levels, then the respondent may become burdened by the process. This could result in less accurate responses. In these types of situations, the researcher might need to adjust the data collection method.

Traditionally, market researchers are viewed as information-providers, but they should function in a more consultative role today, combining data analysis with marketing knowledge to deliver actionable insights.  To do this, researchers must have a comprehensive understanding of their clients’ customers, including cultural differences that may affect attitudes toward choice.