Every human being makes thousands, perhaps millions, of choices over the course of a lifetime, and each one has some kind of personal and social impact.
"Choice is essentially the only tool we have that enables us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow," says Sheena Iyengar, whose book, "The Art of Choosing," sums up over 15 years of her research on the subject.
Iyengar examines how we make important life decisions, like who to marry, as well as seemingly trivial choices such as which kind of candy bar or soft drink to buy.
"Choice is what enables us to do things," says Iyengar. She believes the universal values of love of freedom and control over one's life and surroundings, inform all of our choice-making decisions.
"No human being says, 'enslave me.' No country says, 'conquer me.' We all look to choice to give us control." Iyengar believes how that control gets practiced and exercised in our lives is culturally determined. "We are taught from the moment we're born how to think about choice and how to practice it."
Desire to choose is universal, how we choose varies by culture
A 1995 psychology experiment Iyengar conducted with American and Japanese university students bears out her point.
When the American students were asked which concepts they associated with the word "choice," they cited terms like independence, possibility, opportunity and dream - especially "the American Dream."
"When you ask the Japanese or the Chinese," reports Iyengar, "they think of responsibility, burden and anxiety. They see choice as something that requires a lot of effort and has a lot of potential consequences associated with it."
Put another way, people in Asian cultures tend to place greater emphasis on how their choices will affect others. People in the West tend to give more weight to what they want for themselves personally.
Growing up in a traditional Sikh-American home while attending American schools, Iyengar learned to navigate these differences early on.
"They were two totally different mindsets," she says. "So there was always this conflict about which one you give precedence to, in what context."
In her own life, Iyengar chose the American way with a "love marriage" rather an arranged one, as her parents did. She and her husband are teaching their 5-year-old to balance his own preferences against a deep respect for his elders' view of what is best for him. It's a balance reflected in the title of her new book.
"'The art of choosing, as I define it, is the ability to understand and accept our limitations and, at the same time, take advantage of the possibilities before us," says Iyengar.
Choosing well can be a complex process
Choice is a complex process. That's one reason psychologists, anthropologists, economists, political scientists and other experts have all weighed in on how it works. Indeed choice is so complex, says Iyengar, that doing it well takes both time and effort.
"You have to consult your gut, which tells you how you feel. Then you have to engage your reasoned analysis, which tells you all those pros and cons." It also pays to consult others, to get more information and to compensate for your own biases. "Only then can you really make a quote, 'informed choice.'"
Poorly informed choices can cause suffering on a global scale. Iyengar points to the global financial crisis as an example. In her view, it was set in motion largely by corporations that chose to sell home mortgages to people they knew could not afford them, and by people who chose to buy homes they couldn't pay for.
Both groups were acting on an economic model that automatically put short-term self interest ahead of long-term consequences.
"But why can't people be taught about how to think about self interest in a more long-term way?" Iyengar asks. "If we think more carefully about this tool called 'choice,' we can actually improve our lives both as individuals as well as a society."