As choice plays such an important role online — what we choose to click, read, download, watch, add to a shopping cart, follow, and so on — I was fascinated by the wonderfully insightful work of Sheena Iyenkar in her book “The Art of Choosing“.
“Choosing is a creative process, one through which we construct our environment, our lives, ourselves.”
Iyengar describes the glorification of choice in American culture, which emphasizes individuality, and the differences with Asian cultures in which the deference of choice to parents or elders and harmony preservasion is preferred. In her article “Choice and Its Discontents: Challenges for the New Millennium”, Iyengar writes:
From the beginning of our nation’s history, the concept of “choice” has been glorified. “Liberty,” after all, is enshrined subordinate only to “life” itself in our Declaration of Independence. Even today, the glorification of “choice” permeates many aspects of American life–from the plethora of options available within our local grocery stores, where there are often aisles devoted solely to different types of potato chips or soft drinks, to the use of choice, or more specifically “pro-choice,” as a persuasive device in current political debate. In our day-to-day lives, the choices we make may range from the trivial, such as what to eat and what to wear, to the consequential, such as what career to undertake and whom to marry. Inherent in all of these practices is the belief that choice is both desirable and powerful.
One recent and highly influential cultural analysis presented by Markus and Kitayama implies that preferences for, and benefits of, choice might well vary across different cultural contexts. In particular, Markus and Kitayama have suggested that whereas personal agency is an essential element of the self-identities of American individualists, it may be considerably less relevant to the self-worth of members of more collectivistic cultures, characteristic of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere. If so, then the links between the provision of choice and job satisfaction, motivation and performance may prove less universal and more particularly relevant for North Americans and Western Europeans.
Westerners, Markus and Kitayama suggest, possess a self-identity that is fundamentally independent. Such individuals will strive for independence, seek a sense of individual autonomy and desire to express their personal preferences in order to establish their uniqueness within their environments. For Americans, therefore, making a choice provides an opportunity to display one’s preferences, and consequently to express one’s internal attributes, to assert one’s autonomy and to fulfill the goal of being unique. For Americans, individual choice and personal autonomy may be deeply intertwined with their sense of identity.
By contrast, consider a different cultural context in which the members possess a more interdependent model of the self. As opposed to American individualists, Markus and Kitayama theorize, members of more interdependent cultures (i.e., most non-Western cultures, notably those in Asia) strive for interconnectedness and belongingness with their social in-groups by seeking to maintain harmony and endeavoring to fulfill the wishes of those in-groups.