Making Right Choices: Art or Science?
Summing Up Is choice an art or science? Jim Heskett's readers wonder whether the question is the right one to ask. (Online forum has closed; next forum opens January 6.)
Thoughtful comments are hard to summarize in five paragraphs. That explains why this month's task is impossible. But one thing unites nearly everyone responding to this column, and that is one kind of objection or other to the question: Is choosing an art or science?
Many concluded that it is both, depending on such things as the level of complexity, stage of the decision-making process, the purpose of the decision, the context in which the choice is made, whether we are deciding or rationalizing the decisions we've already made, or our personal makeup. Shadreck Saili notes that answers to the question depend on "the magnitude and complexity of the choices to be made…" Yedendra Chouksey and S. Huang appear to agree that, in the words of Chouksey, "creation of choices is more of an art … and evaluation (of alternatives) a science." Kamal Gupta sorted it out this way: Decisions on personal matters carry a greater weight of art; those that relate to work have more of science. Frances Pratt commented, "It is often the art … that allows us to imagine that we are indeed making a controlled, scientific choice…. We often use art to justify those choices that don't turn out the way that we intend." Reminding us of the importance of personal makeup, Michelle commented, "Indeed, we are our choices!" Stephen Basikoti concluded that "Choosing … cannot be boxed…. All we can do is use science to understand the uncertainly of choosing … while using art to sharpen the intuitiveness that goes into the moment of choice."
Others maintained that choosing is neither an art nor a science. Laurence McKinney said, "We ultimately base our decisions on 'feelings'" and emotions, aided by such things as quality of memory and the amount of information one can access through "hookup density" in the brain. Paul Nicholas agreed, "We tend to make choices and decisions based on feelings; our consciousness then starts to explain or rationalize the choice to ourselves and others." Tom Dolemba commented that decisions are made from spirit, and that "with science comes anonymity … with art comes denial … a real decision is delivered from the soul."
The science of choosing was characterized as what business does to influence consumers. Gerald Nanninga calls it "ego management," the science of giving people (consumers in this case) "a feeling of power" and "of being 'special'." As Dave G puts it, "companies are becoming (good) at making a very aware person like myself make the decision they want me to make." He asks whether the study of "decision making is actually hurting our society rather than helping?"
Whatever choosing may be, several commented on the importance of timing. As Phil Clark put it, "The longer you take to make a decision … the further away you are from the reality that exists at this moment." Partha Chatterjee added, "A delayed decision, no matter the greatness of it, loses its sheen."
The importance of all of these questions and response is framed by C. J. Cullinane when he says, "choice … equals freedom." Is choosing more than an art and science? What do you think?
Decision-making, at its heart, involves a series of choices. Neuropsychologists tell us that the human brain can comfortably deal with only a limited number of alternatives (seven plus or minus two, according to a number of studies). Fields like decision theory were developed to help humans organize their thinking so that alternative actions could be arrayed according to their attractiveness, expressed in quantitative terms.
Recently, brain-scan technology has enabled researchers to associate choice and decision-making with various parts of the brain. This may be why choice comes up frequently as a favorite subject of authors interested in explaining rational or irrational behavior. We have covered the topic in our previous discussions of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice--which advises decision-makers to "choose when to choose; satisfice more and maximize less; make your decisions nonreversible; regret less; control expectations; and learn to love constraints in order to cope with uncertainty and avoid depression."
Now the genre includes another book, which has made several Top Ten of 2010 lists: Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing. In it, Iyengar explores choices we make as consumers of products and services, many of which she has observed in her numerous experiments. Her definition of choice is "the ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment. In order to choose, we must first perceive that control is possible."
She concludes that:
- Choice is desirable, but only up to a point. Beyond that, it becomes confusing to a decision-maker.
- Choice on the job can have varying effects on our health, depending in part on our need for choice.
- Choice is often influenced by the way alternatives are presented and by the people presenting them, even when the merit of one alternative is clearly superior to others.
- A natural aversion to loss leads us to make irrational choices that minimize it.
- Choices may be expressly made to enable us to conform to the behaviors or perceptions of others (as in 360-degree evaluations) in relation to our perceptions of ourselves.
- The order in which we encounter options affects our choice (the first and last interviewed in hiring, for example, have an advantage, explaining why "traditional interviews are actually one of the least useful tools for predicting an employee's future success").
- The importance of choice varies from one culture to another, particularly between "individualist" (where it is more important) and "collectivist" societies. This means that no one approach to organizing and motivating people works well globally.
- Choice is especially difficult when it is between two roughly equally good or bad alternatives, which is often the case that managers confront.
The rapidly growing number of alternatives in our lives is a particular challenge for those wishing to make good choices. What are we to do? We can put Schwartz's advice to work. We can trust some decisions to our educated mental "reflexes," as Gladwell suggests. Iyengar adds that, as individuals, we can relax our need for control over choice processes and make more and more choices automatically or out of habit. As managers of companies, we can limit product or service alternatives or provide incentives in order to facilitate customer choice with fewer regrets.
According to Iyengar, "… choosing helps us create our lives. We make choices and are in turn made by them. Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art."
Is choosing really an art? Or is it, or can it become, a science? What do you think?
To read more:
Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational (New York: Harper, 2008)
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005)
Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2010)
Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009)
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004)