Episode 027:

Too Many Choices

with Dr. Sheena Iyengar

September 27th, 2023

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Episode description

Is more choice always better? Join us in conversation with Dr. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School and an expert on choice, as we examine the complexities of choice overload, and discover why having less can sometimes lead to more. We’ll explore the intricate psychology of decision-making, from understanding the reasons behind why we procrastinate making important choices to uncovering why we struggle to handle more than seven options when making a decision. In this episode, we’ll also take a look at a powerful strategy that effectively reduces gender bias in hiring, and how our cultural backgrounds significantly influence our approach to decision-making. Dr. Iyengar also reveals her six-step process for fostering innovation, demonstrating that we don’t always have to wait for the perfect option to arise – we can actively shape the options we desire. Finally, we’ll discuss the pitfalls of brainstorming and uncover the surprising truth about the usefulness of those ‘brilliant’ thoughts that come to us in the shower.


Dr. Sheena S. Iyengar is the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. She is one of the world’s experts on choice and innovation.

In 2010, her book, The Art of Choosing, was ranked by Financial Times, McKinsey, and Amazon as one of the Best Business Books of the Year. Her recorded TED Talks have received a collective seven million views, and she regularly appears in top-tier media such as The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The New Yorker, The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNBC, CNN, BBC, and NPR.

The Asian American Business Development Center ranked her as one of 2022’s Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business. She also regularly appears on the Thinkers50 list of the Most Influential Business Thinkers. In 2012, she was recognized by Poets & Quants as one of the Best Business School Professors for her work merging academia with practice. In 2002, she was the only social scientist to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Office of the President.

Sheena holds a dual degree from the University of Pennsylvania, with a B.S. in economics from the Wharton School and a B.A. in psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University.

In her personal life, as a blind woman, Iyengar intuitively used her book, Think Bigger: How to Innovate, to find her calling and strives to inspire others to do the same.




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Producer’s Note: This episode contains references to children with terminal illnesses, which some listeners may find upsetting.

Charles: We are excited to welcome our guest today, Dr. Sheena Iyengar. Dr. Iyengar is a world expert on choice and decision-making. Her first book, The Art of Choosing, received the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year 2010 Award. Sheena’s research is regularly cited in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and her TED Talks have collectively received almost four million views. Sheena is the inaugural S. T. Lee Professor of Business in the management division at Columbia Business School. She received the Presidential Early Career Award in 2002 and was named a member of The Thinkers 50 in 2011 and 2019—a global ranking of the top 50 Management Thinkers. Her new book, Think Bigger: How to Innovate, is about how to successfully innovate and how to deliberately form creative ideas based on a highly popular course that she taught at Columbia Business School. Welcome to the podcast, Sheena.

Sheena: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Grace: So we are really interested in talking to you about both your first book and your more recent book. So we are going to start with some questions about choosing and then move on to innovation and your Think Bigger work. So one of the topics that I think really was interesting to me, and I think it will be to listeners as well, is the idea of choice overload.

It reminded me of this story that my parents used to tell me all the time. So they are from the UK, and they moved to the US when they were in their thirties. One of the first things they did when they got to the US is they went to the supermarket, to the grocery store, and they would tell me this story about how they went in. They just walked around the aisles and they were so overwhelmed by how many options there were that they actually went home without buying anything and decided they had to come back another day when they had more energy and they were more prepared for what they would find. So I couldn’t help but think about that when I was reading your book. So the question to you is, can you tell us about your really famous jam study and what it can teach us about choice overload?

Sheena: So, in the late 1990s, when I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford University, I used to go to this upscale grocery store located in Menlo Park called Draeger’s. And it was like one of those really special stores back then, which just offered a lot of variety. That was its value add or differentiating factor. It had like 250 different types of mustards and vinegars and mayonnaises. It had over 500 different types of fruits and vegetables. It had a case filled with 100 different types of extra virgin olive oil. So that just gives you a sense of their variety.

And so I did, I guess, a small study. It was a field experiment and, you know, I didn’t really know what I was going to find when doing this study. I just asked the manager whether his model of offering people all this choice was working. And so he agreed to let me do a little experiment. And so I picked jam. At that time they had 348 different types of jam in their jam aisle. And we put out either six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jams. We set up this little tasting booth right near the entrance of the store. And so we either have six or 24, and we keep changing it up every couple of hours. We’re rotating it.

And now we’re looking at essentially two things. First, in which case were people more likely to stop—when they encountered six or when they encountered 24? And it turns out more people stop when there’s 24 than when there’s six. About 60 percent stop, as opposed to 40 percent stop when there’s six. Now they all taste about two, regardless of whether they see six or 24. So they were allowed to taste as many as they wanted. But then what we looked at was we gave everybody who stopped a coupon giving them one dollar off if they bought a jar of jam. There was a code on it that enabled us to track in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? And it turned out that of the people who encountered the 24 different jams on display, only three percent of them bought a jar of jam. Whereas of the people who encountered the display of six, 30 percent of them bought a jar of jam. And that was really the first illustration of the idea that even though people are more attracted to the larger display of options, when it came down to making a choice, they were more likely to make a choice when they saw less than when they saw more.

Grace: That’s really interesting. And why do you think it was? Because, I mean, it makes sense to me that if there’s a big display, people are more excited and they want to go over. But why was it that they were more likely to actually buy one if there were fewer options?

Sheena: Essentially, what happens when people have more choice is they experience more uncertainty. They don’t know what to choose. So, often it’s not so much that they’re saying they’re not going to choose, it’s just the delay or procrastination can go on for a while. They do tend to make more suboptimal choices. That was certainly found to be true when it came down to investment choices. They also chose suboptimally when it came down to healthcare decisions, choices, when they had more of those. And then, finally, you do see that when people have more choices, they are overall less satisfied and report experiencing greater regret with whatever they’ve chosen.

Grace: That’s so interesting. If we own a grocery store, we want to make sure that people are buying jams. But I think it’s really interesting, as you say, that there are some pretty serious implications of the fact that more choice isn’t always better, and when we do have a lot of choice we might procrastinate or not pick the best option. I think you might have just been referencing the study that you did with Vanguard, which I think is a really good illustration of how there can be pretty serious implications of choice overload. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that? I think that’s really impactful.

Sheena: So I did a study with Vanguard back in 2000, and they generously allowed me to look at over a million records. So it was data from about 650 for-profit institutions in the United States. And these represented about 64 different industries, and the company sizes ranged from a few thousand employees to about a hundred thousand employees. So these were all 401(k) plans. And these 401(k) plans were offering their employees anywhere from roughly two different options—you know, you can take this percentage of your income and put it in these two options for it to collect returns. And, obviously, if you put that amount of money in your retirement fund, then your employer would match you. So all of these institutions included in the dataset had an employer match program. And so these plans offered anywhere from two options all the way up to about 60 choices. And it turned out that with the plans that offered their employees more than about a handful of options, we started to see a decline in participation. So if you had about a handful of options, participation rates were close to 80 percent. And then once you got to about 60 options, participation rates had dropped to about 60 percent.

Grace: Wow. Yeah, that’s a pretty big difference. And obviously really impactful if that’s somebody’s retirement savings, that just because there’s more options, they’re not making more choices and going to struggle when they retire.

We all find ourselves in situations like we work for a company and the 401(k) options are 60 options, as you mentioned, where we have to just choose between a lot of options. Or sometimes we’re in the situation where we are the choice provider, as you put it in your book. So we’re presenting choices to others. Some examples are if you were in a company that sells products or a parent giving toys to their kid and giving a lot of different toys for them to choose from. So I’m curious, what advice would you give to somebody about how to minimize choice overload, whether they’re this sort of chooser or a choice provider? How can we mitigate this problem?

Sheena: Well, I do think you want to find ways to cut. So if you’re a choice provider, ask yourself, are all of these choices really different from each other? If you are a chooser, you want to ask yourself, what do I need in whatever I’m looking for? Any way to weed out the useless or irrelevant options. You also want to find a way to organize or categorize the various choices, because that way you can see, based on your criteria, which ones are better or worse. Our natural impulse is to just give ourselves more and more choices because we’re convinced that when the perfect choice hits us—we’ll know it when we see it . . . is what our general belief system is. And the reality is that the more stimuli are coming your way, it’s not the case that you’re going to know it when you see it. Quite the opposite—you’re going to get saturated.

Grace: Yeah. I definitely would have the intuition that I’ll know it when I see it, whether it’s trying to pick the right college, or trying to buy a house, or whatever the case may be. Am I correct in thinking that around seven choices is kind of the most that we can handle? Is that right? Or what’s the optimum number if you’re providing choices to someone?

Sheena: I mean, certainly there was that famous piece by George Miller about the magical number seven, plus or minus two, in which he indicates that we can keep track of up to seven, plus or minus two, bits of information. And there’s no way to actually prove, that I know of, that that’s the exact number. I can tell you that, anecdotally though, across all the studies, it does roughly fall around there. Sometimes people can handle a little bit more. It’s not a scientific statement to say seven, plus or minus two, but it’s a pretty good heuristic.

That being said, if you are an expert—let’s say you’re a chess master. When you’re contemplating your next move, if you were to consider all the moves you have at your disposal—what you do and then what your opponent could do in response, all those variations of options—you have more choices available to you than the total number of stars in the galaxy.

“Our natural impulse is to just give ourselves more and more choices because we’re convinced that when the perfect choice hits us—we’ll know it when we see it . . . the reality is that the more stimuli are coming your way . . . you’re going to get saturated.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: Oh my goodness. That’s more than 24 jams, too!

Sheena: Even chess masters who are not relying on AI do make a choice despite the plethora of options. And that, again, comes down to the fact that they have learned how to organize the options, how to eliminate the irrelevant options. So, certainly, with expertise you can quickly take a large set of choices and organize them in a way such that you can zero in on the most relevant handful of options. It’s important to note, though, that even though experts can deal with a lot of options, when they’re actually making a choice they’re still only considering about a handful of options. It’s not that they have better memory banks. So if I were to take a chess board and arrange it in a way that couldn’t possibly happen in a chess game, it turns out that the chess masters are no better at recalling how you arranged it than a novice.

Grace: Wow, that’s fascinating.

Sheena: I mean, my favorite quote is one by Danny Kahneman, where he says that intuition is nothing more and nothing less than pattern recognition. And I do think that’s what knowledge is. It’s just the more patterns you have in your head, the better equipped you are to process more information.

Grace: That’s great. Wonderful. And thanks for quoting Daniel Kahneman. He’s actually also on this podcast season, so we’re excited for that as well.

Charles: I think maybe in your second book, which we’re going to talk about in a little bit, you use the phrase “informed intuition.” Is that right? So you can, through experience, give your brain a vast number of patterns, which looks like intuition from the outside. But it’s been trained through recognizing lots of patterns over many, many experiences.

Sheena: Yes.

Charles: Okay, so I came across this—I mean, there are many studies you talk about in your first book—but this one really caught my eye. Again, I guess it’s counterintuitive. It’s called “Doing Better but Feeling Worse.” So, essentially, you were working with a bunch of students who were seeking their first serious job. And some of the students were quite casual about it, and some of them were very judicious about the process.

And, you know, no surprise—the ones that were judicious, they end up getting more job offers. They end up getting offered higher salaries. But surprise, surprise, they’re not any happier than that other group. And I think there’s a couple of different interpretations that you’ve mentioned in different places, but could you just tell us a little bit more about that study and what you think is going on there? Because it’s very surprising to learn.

Sheena: Yeah, it does turn out that the people that apply for more jobs, do more due diligence, actually get more job offers, get higher salaries but are less satisfied. Kind of like going on a lot of dates—a date with a new person every day for a whole month. You probably get a lot of offers for second dates at the end of the month, but you don’t know what you want anymore.

Grace: Right. We all know people like that with jobs and with dates.

Sheena: Yes. And you don’t really know how to process each option. You don’t know how to compare and contrast. You’re trying to optimize, but you don’t even know anymore what you’re optimizing on.

Charles: In your book, you were perhaps hinting at the fact that if we adopt a very analytical approach to decision-making, we can sometimes neglect the emotional aspect of it, whereas maybe people that aren’t so judicious about decision-making—maybe they allow themselves to be led a little bit more by emotions. And, obviously, how we feel about something does feed into our happiness and satisfaction around it. So, I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more about that interpretation of this study?

Sheena: We tend to—let’s say you have a problem and the problem could be looking for a job, could be anything. And then you feel like you need to gather up your options and put a whole bunch of attributes by which you’re going to judge these options, and you rank order them, and then you choose the one that satisfies the most number of needs that you’ve stated.

We all know the story of someone telling you, “I’m looking for this, this, this.” And then the other person tells you, “Okay, well then you should choose that. That’s the one that fits all those criteria.” And you’re like, “No, I don’t want that.” Right? That’s because the one thing that we cared about, we didn’t know how to articulate in a way that felt objective and not emotional. And so what I tell people is that before you have to do the process of identifying options, gathering up the information . . . and obviously there are biases in information gathering and processing, which we’re trying to mitigate. But to turn you into a bias-free machine—it’s not going to happen, right? Everybody knows that, including Danny Kahneman.

So I’m going to accept the fact that you’re a bias-making machine. And what I’m going to do is, I’m going to say—before you start this whole exercise of searching for jobs or searching for a romantic partner, I’m not going to ask you, “What are you looking for?” I’m going to ask you, “If you were to find the perfect job, if you were to find the perfect romantic partner or romantic relationship, how would you want to feel?” Just feelings, not attributes, because attributes are things you’re still learning about. It’s how do you want to feel? So it’s the adjectives.

It’s important to surface those adjectives upfront because that is telling you upfront what your bias is going to be. You might as well surface it, so at least you’re aware of it. And those emotions or feelings are actually the selection criteria you’re going to use anyway. And so you want to do it upfront because that way it will enable you to do a better job of information gathering and information processing, as opposed to pretending like you’re not having these emotions affect your processing. Instead, you’re going to surface it so that you actually have it, you’ve acknowledged it, and now you can use it for what it’s important for, which is the selection criteria. And when you’re doing your information gathering and processing, that’s a separate exercise.

“I’m going to accept the fact that you’re a bias-making machine . . . I’m not going to ask you, ‘What are you looking for?’ I’m going to ask you, ‘If you were to find the perfect job, if you were to find the perfect romantic partner or romantic relationship, how would you want to feel?’ . . . It’s important to surface those adjectives upfront because that is telling you upfront what your bias is going to be.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: One thing that really stood out to us from your Think Bigger book was the idea of predefining your criteria before you come up with ideas. You said that if you predefine your hiring criteria, it leads to less gender bias. I thought that was really fascinating. I wonder if we can jump ahead a little bit to that and you could tell us a little bit about how that works and why you might have less bias if you predefine your criteria for hiring.

Sheena: What do people mostly do now? They just gather a whole bunch of candidates and then they say, okay, so what are we looking for? Well, then you’re going to basically say what you’re looking for based on whoever’s your favorite candidate anyway.

Grace: So interesting. Right, you’re like, oh, we didn’t know we were looking for someone from the Chicago area who has this specific career path. Yeah, absolutely.

Sheena: Do it upfront before you ever get your candidates. What’s the feeling? We don’t have to get into the attributes. We know that we’ll learn those attributes later.

Grace: Yeah, that connects a little bit to something that we use at the Alliance for Decision Education for hiring, which is called a weight-and-rate table. Essentially it does exactly what you say. We use it for any complex decisions that have a lot of criteria and a lot of options, and we use it to evaluate candidates. And one of the benefits is that we come up with the criteria first for what we want. But I think that’s a really interesting nuance to make sure that you’re really thinking about, how do you want to feel? But another thing that is really interesting for the weight-and-rate table is that we also include the idea of weighting things. So you might want a lot of things from a good candidate, but you might prefer some things over others. So it might be more important that someone has interpersonal skills than that they have problem-solving skills, for example. If listeners want to learn more, we’ll link in the show notes to the weight-and-rate table. But I thought your chapter in your book about comparing wants did a really good job of talking more about why it’s so important to predefine criteria when you’re innovating.

Charles: Yeah. I was just going to add that it’s interesting what you’re saying there. A lot of the approaches to dealing with cognitive biases are attempts to try and not be biased. And I think there is a growing sense that it’s really hard to remove your biases. And what you are saying is, another approach is if you can’t necessarily beat them, pull them out into the light, and then at least you can see them and everyone can transparently see that is influencing your decision-making process. So it sounds like a really helpful, fresh approach to the biases question.

Grace: Another topic that I think was really interesting in The Art of Choosing, and in a lot of your work around choice, is the idea of cultural differences in how we view and approach choice. So you write about this really fascinating study comparing French parents with US/American parents, both of whose children have, I think it was cerebral anoxia, which—I’m no doctor, but I understand is a very serious, life-threatening condition. And in both cases, the decision was made to take the children off life support. But in the case of the French parents, it was the doctors who chose. The American parents made those choices themselves. So I’d love it if you could tell us more about that study and what it tells us about how choice is viewed differently in different cultures.

Sheena: So what happened in that case—you’re absolutely right—all the infants were born with cerebral anoxia. And, essentially, most doctors would advise to remove them off life support and they effectively die. And that’s because, with cerebral anoxia, they really can’t live any sort of a basic life. In the United States, legally, the parents have to sign the consent form before life support is removed. In France, unless parents have some religious reason to do otherwise, the decision is left, by default, to the doctor.

So in the case of cerebral anoxia, all the doctors in France made the decision to remove the infants off of life support. And in the United States also, we looked at those cases where the decision was made for them to remove their kids off of life support. Now, these parents were followed for about a year after the decision was made, by therapists and hospital personnel. What we learned was that the American parents had a much harder time coping with the death of their infants than the French parents. And in the case of the French parents, they were more likely to say things like, “We miss our Noah so, so much. But he taught us so much in the little time he was here.” Whereas the American parents were much more likely to say things like, “I feel as if I played a role in an execution.” You know what’s interesting is that Americans, even as I say this, will still tell you that they would rather be the ones to make the decision. And so, certainly, the one big question is who should make that choice? And I don’t know if we’re equipped to know how to choose the quantity versus quality-of-life decision.

Grace: Absolutely. And I guess the doctors are more equipped? Or is it just that, if the choice affects you and you are the one who makes it, then you feel differently about it? Why is it that doctors can make that?

Sheena: I’m sure we could debate about the merits and demerits as to how qualified doctors are to decide life versus death. But for them, it’s a decision that they’re making. Not that we’re saying that it’s completely unemotional, but it’s part of their job script. Whereas the family members, there’s a lot of other things going on in that decision other than probabilities, etc. So who is more equipped to make the decision? I think we could debate about that. What we can say is that when family members have to make the decision, they will suffer more.

Grace: So I guess that sort of connects to a bigger picture about culture and choice. And you mentioned in your book about the idea of individualistic cultures versus collectivist cultures. It’s a slightly different thing from the story that we just talked about. But I hadn’t really come across this idea, honestly.

I think about decision-making and choice a lot through my job, but I think, until I came across your work, I’d never considered the fact that a choice would sit differently in the life of someone from one culture versus another. Could you tell us a bit more about this difference between collectivistic and individualistic cultures and how people might view choice from each of those?

Sheena: We think choice is something so basic that it’s innate and that we’re all sort of born with the same understanding of what it is and how valuable it is and how you do it. But I think we’re all born with a natural desire to have basic control over our lives.

Like nobody would say they want to be caged. There isn’t a single culture that is okay with being thrown in a prison, right? Notice how they all came up with prison as a form of punishment. So we seem to have that in common, and that’s actually in common even with animals. So that seems to be basic. But beyond that, it appears that everything else about choice, personal autonomy, agency is cultural. It’s taught—that, essentially, your parents, your environment teach you what is a choice, how it should be made, how much you need of it, what constitutes a good and bad choice. These are all things that you’re learning, starting from when you’re a baby, subconsciously. And little by little you’re adding to that knowledge base.

In Asian culture, it’s understood that your parents would make a lot of choices for you when you’re a kid. In American culture, it’s taken for granted that your parents will start giving you choices from a very early age. In American culture, you start asking your kid when they’re two or something, “What would you like to eat?” In many cultures, that’s considered a little bizarre.

“We think choice is something so basic that it’s innate and that we’re all sort of born with the same understanding of what it is and how valuable it is and how you do it. But I think we’re all born with a natural desire to have basic control over our lives . . . beyond that, it appears that everything else about choice, personal autonomy, agency is cultural. – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: And maybe it’s bizarre in any culture. I don’t know. Being an American now, I’m like, does a two-year-old know what they want to eat? I don’t know.

Sheena: But we’re training them that they’re supposed to know. We’re giving them that message that this is something you should know. And so I think that choice is a cultural construct.

Grace: So I guess, connected to that, a lot of us will find ourselves in workplaces or schools, in environments that are full of people from different backgrounds. Whether like myself, you’ve moved to another country for work or whether you are just in a city that has a very culturally diverse workforce, or even, I’m thinking about teachers who are in schools and their students come from a lot of different backgrounds. What advice do you have for someone who is working in or managing a kind of culturally diverse environment in this way?

Sheena: So I do think you have to understand everybody’s individual narratives, right? Because even though—one of the things that makes me nervous about talking about culture is that culture itself is such a dynamic thing.

And you might be from China, but there are some ways in which you’re affected by Chinese culture, and some ways you’re affected by American culture. And vice versa, right? So I’m a little nervous about making any kind of generalization about different cultures because that’s another form of stereotyping. And so, I guess, my way of thinking about culture as a way to use it in the workplace, is to really just try to understand and get people to share what their stories are. And what are their assumptions about how things should be done? How do they judge good, better, indifferent? What are their core values?

Because that way you not only understand the individual differences, but you can also start to understand how to create a shared narrative. Because that’s what you’re really trying to do in a workplace, is create a shared understanding and a shared narrative so that people are working toward the same goal.

“My way of thinking about culture as a way to use it in the workplace, is to really just try to understand and get people to share what their stories are . . . what are their core values? Because that way you not only understand the individual differences, but you can also start to understand how to create a shared narrative.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: That’s really interesting. I mean, there’s definitely a big difference between looking at someone or hearing their name and then assuming that they have a certain view on choice or a certain cultural background versus creating an environment in a workplace or in a school that gives space to people from all different backgrounds. But I think that’s a really good point that asking people to share their stories is the best way to know, if you’re the manager, who your team is and how to best approach things. That’s really helpful. Thanks.

Sheena: I mean, you have to be careful with these. Now, particularly with big data, right? Say there’s a woman who lives in a suburban town who owns a mini, and I ask you, “Is she married?” You’d probably say yes. Does she have kids? You’d say yes. Do the kids have sports activities? You’d say yes. See, you would conclude a lot about Deborah based on the fact that she has a mini. And that’s because we have a lot of data based on Facebook, based on all kinds of things. And we could say, “Yes, if I have this much information, yes, I can conclude all these things about Deborah.” But, I don’t know, that still feels like a lot of stereotyping is going on. She’s probably a lot more complex than that.

Grace: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Because there is a ton of value in data for decision-making. But that kind of data, as you say, can kind of narrow things and make the world smaller rather than making it bigger.

Charles: Absolutely. So I want to switch now to talking about your latest book, Think Bigger, which we’ve both been digging into over the last couple of weeks—absolutely fascinating. I guess the first question I want to check in on is—you are a renowned expert on choice and decision-making. Your recent book, the focus of it is innovation. So, if we could just take a little moment for you to bridge those two worlds. How does decision-making, and your experience in that, connect to where your focus is now, which is innovation?

Sheena: So I think it’s been a mistake for people to think of innovation as separate from choice in decision-making. I think that if you think about choice, it is a tool and this tool has two purposes. The first purpose is to help you pick and find, right? So you have a need or a want and you go search for all the possibilities. And then, once you find one that’s in line with your need or desire, you pick.

But what if it doesn’t exist? And, certainly, if there’s one thing that humans have shown, one way or another, they’re really loath to stagnate. Even if they create things that are destructive, they like to create. And so how do they create? Well, they create by taking options that already exist and combining them in new ways to create new options. And so, creativity is the pairing of our ability to pick and find with our ability to imagine how to take what we’ve found and combine it in a new way.

Charles: Right. Super interesting. We did a blog piece, a couple of years back now, with Ralph Keeney. And he wrote a book called Give Yourself a Nudge: Helping Smart People Make Smarter Personal and Business Decisions. And he speaks, in that, about how we often think of decision-making as something that relates to problems. You know, I have a problem. We think of it as some work to do to resolve some sort of challenge. But, in fact, it could be really beneficial for us to think differently about how we engage with the world, in the sense that rather than just looking at decision problems, we seek decision opportunities.

So it felt that what you’re talking about in this book is a reframe for how you can find useful, valuable decisions to make rather than be passively waiting for decisions to face you that you have to solve.

Sheena: Yeah, I think it’s a mistake when people wait around for the right choice to come around. You have to construct it.

“If there’s one thing that humans have shown, one way or another, they’re really loath to stagnate. Even if they create things that are destructive, they like to create . . . creativity is the pairing of our ability to pick and find with our ability to imagine how to take what we’ve found and combine it in a new way.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: Yeah, I guess in the field of decision-making, I’m often thinking about decision-making as picking between things. And sometimes it’s picking between things and things that could exist, so I really like that. I think that that expands the value of choosing in general. So we’ll go into a little bit more detail in a second, but I’d love it, to begin, if you could give us a brief overview of the six-step process for innovation that you describe in Think Bigger. Maybe you might use the Nancy Johnson invention example? I just loved that.

Sheena: So why don’t I just tell you the Nancy Johnson story, and in the process I’ll tell you the steps, even though she didn’t know the six steps. But we know how she created what she created. In the 1800s, ice cream was very expensive. George Washington paid about $200 for a thing of ice cream. It was expensive because you would take a big bowl and you would fill it with ice, and then you would take a smaller bowl and fill it with milk, and then you would have to stir, stir, stir, stir, stir. And as you’re stirring, it’s getting harder and harder to do it because it’s thickening. So it becomes back-breaking labor. It’s melting as you’re stirring and forming lumps.

Grace: Work off those calories before you eat your ice cream, in those days!

Sheena: Exactly. And so it was quite expensive and really inaccessible. And so Nancy Johnson is this woman in her fifties who’s a missionary. She’s also an abolitionist, and she helps out with the Underground Railroad, and she’s a wife of a chemistry professor, and she lives in Philadelphia. And so she sets out to address the question of how do we make ice cream more affordable? And so what were the three big challenges? One was, when making it, how do you keep it cold? Second is, when making it, how do you make the labor easier? And third, when making it, how do you keep it from forming lumps? And so now what she does for each challenge, she searches for a solution for how this problem can be solved. And, obviously, the solutions didn’t exist in the ice cream-making business, so she looked in other places.

So how do you keep it cold? She says, why don’t I take a much bigger thing like a water pail? Water pails had already existed for 400 years. I’m going to fill that up with ice. And then I’m going to put the milk in something else inside and I’m going to put it in something that keeps liquid cold. And, back then, men who would go to the taverns would get their beer in a pewter mug because that would keep it cold.

Then she says, well, how do I make the labor easier? Well, why don’t I use a hand grinder and attach spatulas to the hand grinder? Because that will make it easier to stir. And the hand grinder was already being used for grinding coffee and spice. Now to prevent it from forming lumps, she takes the spatulas, but she doesn’t use ordinary spatulas. Now, we don’t know exactly where she got this idea yet from. It’s speculated that she might have gotten it from the runaway slaves. A lot of slaves ran away from the sugar plantations. And on the sugar plantations, they would often make molasses, and molasses was made from stirring very, very hot liquid with sugar.

In order to prevent it from forming crystals, they would use spatulas with holes in them. And so she attaches spatulas with holes in them to the hand grinder, and now she’s using the same principle, but for cold liquid mixed with sugar. And so when you put these pieces together, you have what was dubbed by the Library of Congress, in 1843, a disruptive technology. That was the ice cream maker, and it pretty much still works the way she originally envisioned.

Grace: Wow. Amazing. Also, I love the idea of a disruptive technology being an ice cream maker. That’s the coolest kind of disruptive technology. And that she’s from Philadelphia, which is where I now live and where the Alliance is based! So that’s really fascinating. And so that process that she followed is pretty much what the process is in Think Bigger? Would that be all the steps?

Sheena: Define the problem. Notice how I defined it as a question. I broke it down into its three most important parts. Because of our cognitive limitations, I don’t usually let people break it down beyond about five or six. Then for each subproblem, for each challenge, you go out into the world and you ask yourself, how have people solved this part of the problem? And you should search widely in other industries. That’s how you get out-of-the-box ideas. And then you take the pieces, like the various solutions, and you combine them in a way that feels seamless.

Now, I just gave you the combination that Nancy created. She probably experimented with a lot more pieces. We just know the final pieces that she put together. So when I teach people how to think bigger, you have to come up with a lot more solutions that are being used so that you have a lot more choice in terms of what combinations you can create.

And so you are doing what I call choice mapping, which is you take the various parts of your solutions that you’ve learned about, that you’ve discovered, and now you combine and recombine in lots of different ways until you find one that works. So that’s the core of Think Bigger.

We have two other pieces to it. One is compare wants, which is what we talked about earlier, which is you want to identify how you want your final solution to feel. And that’s before you even start everything I just said. And then, finally, once you have a solution, just because it feels right doesn’t mean that it exists beyond your head. And that’s—the final step is what I call the third eye. And that’s when I describe to you my idea, and I don’t ask you if you like it or not. I just ask you what you see. Essentially, how would you describe my idea back to me? That way I can see if you’re seeing the same thing.

“Take the various parts of your solutions that you’ve learned about, that you’ve discovered, and now you combine and recombine in lots of different ways until you find one that works.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: Yeah, I would be so inclined to say, “What do you think of my new invention?”

Sheena: Well, once you learn what they see, that’s actually still an important part of ideation because I discover you saw it slightly differently. And I might actually like the stuff you saw and I use that to edit. Or I might discover what parts of my idea I need to throw out because it’s not landing the way I intended. You learn a lot from having somebody else describe your idea back to you.

Grace: Yeah, I would be nervous to do so, which probably shows how impactful it would be. I also—another thing that stood out to me is the idea of inside-the-box and outside-the-box thinking and how Nancy Johnson found some of the pieces of the puzzle from all different industries. And then it kind of reminded me of one of the things I think you say early on in your book, which is that, when people think about innovation, a lot of people think about brainstorming, for example. And I think that you would say there’s a time and a place for brainstorming, but I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about what brainstorming does and what the Think Bigger method does. And if there’s any value in brainstorming or if Think Bigger is just an improvement on that.

Sheena: So I, in general, am not a fan of brainstorming. I think having meetings where you share information can be useful. But I’m not a fan of brainstorming. You know, kind of give you some quick ideas when you’re in a real bind and you need something quickly? Yeah, maybe. But, in general, I’m not a fan. I mean, for you guys, since this whole podcast often talks about decision-making, I think brainstorming exercises are basically a bias-making, decision-making process. It’s a great recipe for all kinds of biases and information processing, information gathering, even ideation itself.

So it’s not a way to get really good quality ideas. It’s not a way to get good quality information, etc. So if you ask people, “Where do you get your best ideas? What were you doing?” You’ll find that most people will say that they got it in the shower, taking a nap, doing a jog, etc. So these moments when you least expect it. About 20 percent of people’s “aha moments” happen during these mind-wandering moments. But eighty percent happen when they’re hard at work.

“You learn a lot from having somebody else describe your idea back to you.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Grace: That wouldn’t be my intuition, but I believe it. I guess when you have a thought in the shower, it stands out to you as being so amazing that we remember it more. Maybe that’s why it feels like that.

Sheena: That’s right. We do tend to overestimate the value of these, and some of them turn out okay. But, you know, they’re actually less likely to turn out to be useful than the ones you get at work. That’s not to say they may not still be useful. They may be useful for inspiration, motivating you, re-energizing you, etc.

So when we’re stuck and, you know, we’ve run out of showers, we’ve run out of naps, what do we tend to do when we brainstorm? And “brainstorm” was invented in 1938 by a man by the name of Alex Osborne. And he came up with a few rules, which have become very common: defer judgment, build on the ideas of others, go for wild ideas, go for quantity. And those are great rules if you want to have a fun dinner conversation. And I am all in support of having those rules for a fun dinner conversation. But those are not great rules if you’re looking for a high-quality decision. Even if you don’t have a lot of time, I would still say, even if you have to bring people into a room, first have them think by themselves for five to 10 minutes about information they have. And based on that information, what would they suggest? Even if you did that modification itself, you would get much greater diversity of ideas and higher quality.

Grace: Especially, it’s good to have a tip when you don’t have as much time. That’s great.

Sheena: Otherwise, I would say, if you’re looking for a really good-quality idea, you want to do choice mapping. And I understand that choice mapping, and the way I described the Nancy Johnson process, certainly feels more cumbersome than—let’s just get in a room and quickly throw out a whole bunch of ideas, and in 10 minutes, we’ll have 30 ideas, or maybe even 50. And, yes, you might. You do get a lot of ideas, but by the way, most of them will be redundant and you won’t be able to use them. With choice mapping, you certainly can do it relatively quickly as you get practice with it, and it will just improve the quality. So definitely, if you want quality, I would go for that.

Grace: Fantastic.

Sheena: If you ever find somebody who tells you that they had their best ideas during a brainstorm, jot them down. That’s memorable. Because I’ve asked thousands of people; it’s rare to find somebody who says they had their best idea in a brainstorm.

Grace: I’ll keep an ear out. I’ll send it your way if so, but it sounds like I probably won’t find any. So that’s a way to keep your inbox from getting too cluttered.

Charles: I wanted to focus on one of the steps. And the one that really stood out for me was something that paralleled with a step in the decision-making process we work with young people in, which is—step one is essentially framing what your decision is.

And when we look at the Think Bigger approach, you have the first step being—choose the right problem to solve. I think, in the book, you actually say that it’s the step we spend the least amount of time on, though it’s the step we should spend the most of time on. So I’d be really interested if you could just outline—how do we practically go about finding an interesting and valuable problem to solve?

Sheena: So I would say it is absolutely the case you have to spend a lot of time on that. It’s like writing a paper and you discover the thesis only after many, many rounds of writing. So it does take time, whatever that problem is. How do I find a job that’s suitable for me? How do I motivate these children to want to learn?

Whatever it is—we always start at the broadest level in a form that’s fairly vague. You have to be able to drill it down, and that means that you keep defining it in as many different ways as you can and sort of do the trade-offs across them until you see one that seems solvable and solvable in a way that would really be value add.

I tell people to frame and reframe that problem or step down that problem, step it down, step it right, step it left, step it in all different directions until you find a way of defining it that actually makes sense, meaning that I can break it down in ways that I can get useful bits to work with.

Charles: If you could tell us about the stepping up and the trade-offs involved with stepping up to a broader problem and the trade-offs involved with stepping down to a narrower problem. That’s really interesting.

Sheena: One example that I used in the book was the case of these folks at NASA that really wanted to help when the world shut down. And so they were reading the news every day, just like you and me, and asking themselves, well, what are all the problems that are existing? We’re tired of being locked up. Let’s just try to help. And so every day they’d make a list of all the problems that people were suffering from, right?

And they’re asking themselves, okay, so what’s a problem we can solve? Even though we don’t have expertise in COVID, what’s a problem that we have expertise in that we can bring to bear? To solve. And so when they started to use that criteria, they were able to throw out a lot of different problems that were in the news that they knew they couldn’t deal with.

And then they picked one that they thought they had some expertise that they could create value with. So the ventilator. Even though they were not medical experts, you know, never worked with a ventilator in their lives. They knew something about breathing—in a totally different context—but nevertheless, they knew something about breathing.

And so they were able to then say, let’s get together a group of people to look at the ventilator problem. Then they had some people that talked to medical professions to really understand what you need in a ventilator. What role did it have to play? What elements were most important?

They really had to study it and really had to break it down to what were the most important things that had to be achieved if we were going to get rid of the shortage of the ventilator? And so within 37 days, they were able to create a portable ventilator.

“Frame and reframe that problem . . . until you find a way of defining it that actually makes sense, meaning that I can break it down in ways that I can get useful bits to work with.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Charles: This is extraordinary. It sounds like they were almost freed from, you know, the curse of knowledge. You know, they just were starting from scratch with the ventilator, because didn’t it end up being smaller and requiring fewer components.

Sheena: It was the size of a briefcase and, because the idea was to be able to take it to remote parts of the world, they also made it such that to use it, it didn’t require a lot of knowledge. And they used pictures so that that would direct you on how to use it so that it could become a universal language, so to speak.

Grace: We have a few questions we like to ask of our guests. The question is, what impact on society do you think that there will be when the Alliance succeeds in its mission to ensure that Decision Education is a part of every student’s learning experience?

Sheena: Well, I think it’s very, very important for children today, no matter where they are in the world, to learn how to think, learn how to make decisions.

I think that’s one thing that they need more than ever before. I mean, if you just think about it, how much information is coming at them, how much stimuli is coming at them, they don’t even know what’s real, what’s not real, what’s fake, what’s true. So I do think they need to be given decision-making tools. My personal dream is to be able to take Think Bigger to a level where I am able to empower people from different walks of life to be able to generate solutions to the various problems confronting them as individuals and as collectives.

Grace: Those two definitely overlap. And, yeah, I totally agree about . . . I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what kind of world students are going to step out into when they graduate. But what we do know is that decision skills—knowing how to determine what’s true and what’s not, knowing your values and making decisions that align with those—is definitely going to be applicable, whatever world we’re in, whatever ChatGPT can do by then, or whatever future versions of AI do. So our next question is, what single decision-making tool would you like to pass down to the next generation of decision makers?

“I think it’s very, very important for children today, no matter where they are in the world, to learn how to think, learn how to make decisions. I think that’s one thing that they need more than ever before.” – Dr. Sheena Iyengar

Sheena: Well, I would love to give them the choice map.

Grace: I would love to give them the choice map too.

Sheena: I think the choice map is a great tool for them to use. Right from early on, they will become better decision makers. So I think the choice map is a useful tool for both picking and finding and for creating. And I think they need that, because they’re asked to make increasingly complex choices at a really early age. I mean, as someone who just finished raising—I mean, my son just turned 18.

Grace: Wow. Congratulations!

Sheena: Thank you.

Grace: So, we loved both of your books. But, aside from your books, is there another book that you’d recommend as priority reading for listeners who are keen to improve their decision-making?

Sheena: I mean, Thinking, Fast and Slow, I imagine you’ve already recommended, right?

Grace: You’re welcome to recommend that or whatever you want, but yeah, that is a common answer.

Sheena: Stumbling on Happiness is a classic.

Grace: Great. We’ll link that in the show notes as well. So if listeners want to go online and learn more about your work or to follow you on social media, where should they begin?

Sheena: LinkedIn. I post almost every day.

Charles: Oh, wow. That’s good to know.

Grace: Perfect. Yeah, that’s impressive. Making all of us look bad! For any books, articles, podcasts, or anything else that we mention today, check out the show notes on the Alliance site where you’ll also find a transcript of today’s conversation.

Thank you so much, Sheena, for joining us. This has been a delight.

Charles: Thank you, Sheena.

Sheena: Thank you.

Published September 27, 2023

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