In her very enlightening and compelling book, The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar presents us with a thought-provoking dilemma. Why do we choose the way we do? And, is it culture related?
Well, as it turns out, we are all hardwired to favor choice as something good. Studies show that as early as four months into our life, we can react to a string tied to our fingers, which triggers pleasant "baby" music to play. We quickly figure out the mechanism and indulge in endless renditions of "Baby Bach." However, when the mean researchers remove the string from our finger and begin playing the same music at regular intervals, independent of our control... Guess what? We do not like that, and protest loudly with cries of desperation that are only appropriate for our age.
If we are so programmed to favor choice and how it can be a sort of intrinsic part of being human, then the task of selling something to us is quite a complex one. Especially when we consider how different people perceive choice.
In an experiment conducted by the company that invented bubble wrap, it tried to increase productivity in its manufacturing plants and came up with the concept of self-regulation. It set up teams of workers who would determine goals of production and how to achieve them. It chose when they would work, take a break and what their grail was.
The result? In the plants that employed mostly Anglo Americans and Westerners, the model worked like a charm. Production skyrocketed, and they had a happy bunch of workers.
In the plants where the workers came from countries like Thailand, Indonesia or Japan, the employees were confused as to why management was not doing its job of "telling them what to do." Production fell, and the company had to go back to the drawing board to figure out why a model that yielded such wonderful results in one scenario failed so miserably in the other.
While Westerners have been exposed to the idea that in choice there is freedom, other cultures have a different view of what it means to be free.
According to our constitution, we are guaranteed certain inalienable rights that are self evident like "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." All individual endeavors!
However, there are other proposals that turn to the well-being of the "community" as a means to ensure prosperity.
Without getting into too many details, studies have shown that Hispanics, or Latinos, tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the specrum of how we choose. We like some independence and availability of options, yet we also prefer to be told what to do.
We have brand loyalty because we've been told that "experts" or "people we respect" endorse them. We grew up eating certain brands of food and never challenged them because they were what we were used to (even across borders). Nonetheless, we like the freedom to switch if we so choose, too.
I like the fact that I can write these lines and present my opinion as an option, I like that when you read them you can make your own assumptions and either agree with me or not. To me, the availability of choice is a good thing. I hope that whoever presents choices to me, as a consumer, is aware of the cultural implications of why I favor some items over others.