Monday, December 17, 2012

The Art of Choosing

I read Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing last week. It is a stimulating and rewarding book about recent psychological investigation, often by Iyengar herself, into choice. She is a Professor at Columbia, and her work seems another prime example of the renaissance of psychology has a discipline in the last ten-twenty years. We looked, for example, at Martin Seligman's work here, and Daniel Kahneman has had a major impact on economics.

Iyengar is more interested in choice than happiness or heuristics, however.

Our deep need for choice

First, she emphasizes the profound importance of a feeling of agency, of having some control, to almost all creatures. Even zoo animals exhbit listlessness and distress if they do not have agency. One might think of a zoo as a paradise for wild animals, with food and material needs taken care of. Instead, this "perfect hotel" is anything but.

In spite of the dedication of their human caretakers, animals in zoos may feel caught in a death trap because they exercise minimal control over their lives. .. Due to these physically and psychologically harmful effects, captivity can often result in lower life expectancies despite objectively improved living conditions. Wild African elephants, for example, have an average life span of 56 years as compared to 17 year for zoo-born elephants. p11, 13

There are other examples. Lower ranks of the British civil service have worse health and die younger than the upper ranks, according to a famous piece of research, as they have less control over their daily tasks. Giving residents of an old people's home more control over trivial things - plants, movie screening times, TV - leads to significantly better outcomes in health and happiness.

This is fascinating. We need a minimal sense of control over our surroundings and workflow to be happy. A utopia that takes care of material needs but allows us no sense of control or agency is likely to be make us miserable.

A society built on keeping people in captivity is bound to be unhappy. People need to feel they have choice, or they shrivel. Material abundance alone is not enough to make people happy. It is more likely to be an existence like a captive zoo animal.

Cultural differences

However, cultures differ quite radically in how they think about choice. Most cultures emphasize collective needs and approval over individual needs. The United States, not unexpectedly, is at the individualist extreme.

She contrasts this with the SIkh wedding of her parents in India. All choices were made by the families and tradition. The first time the groom saw the bride was when he lifted her veil after the marriage ceremony.

These cultural predisposotions affects workplace behavior too. She studied worldwide employees of Citibank, carrying out the same tasks. They differed significantly in the amount of choice they perceived they had on their jobs, and how much they preferred management to exert.

 

"Freedom from" versus "freedom to"

She traces such cultural attitudes back to a more fundamental difference over "freedom from" versus "freedom to", which she says Erich Fromm postulated in his 1941 book Escape from Freedom (which I read as a teenager). "Freedom from", said Fromm, is "freedom from the political, economic and spiritual shackles that have bound men,", especially others interfering with the pursuit of our goals. "Freedom to" is an ability, the ability to "attain certain outcomes and realize our full potential."

A system tending too far in either direction can limit people's opportunities, Iyengar says. Capitalism tends towards "freedom from", but not everyone will have access to all the choices available. Communism tends towards "freedom to", including equality of outcomes rather than opportunities. The problem is there is little incentive to work harder or produce more, and it requires a strong government which may become corrupted by power.

She found strong differences still endure between West and East Berliners in her research, for example.

.. people's long-held assumptions about fairness can't simply be swapped for another set of beleifs. I consistently found that West Berliners, like Westerners in general, understand the world through the lens of "freedom from." On the other hand, East Berliners, and in particular the older people, focused on "freedom to", even though communism was now only a memory for them. p65

The American dream is all about "freedom from".

People who see themselves and others as having high personal control tend to favor "freedom from", not only because it provides more opportunities to attain their personal goals but also on grounds of justice - those who put in the most effort will be rewarded, while those who slack off won;t be able to ride on anyone else's coattials. p68

Americans as a whole arguably believe more wholeheartedly in "freedom from" than any other nation.. The basic premise is no one can stand in the way of your highest aspirations, provided that you have the ambition and skills to realize them. p70

This matters because it might mean potentially fundamental and irreconcilable cultural differences in what people believe about the good life, which is a primary interest of this blog. The good life in the Confucian tradtion would be very different from the good life in the Jeffersonian tradition, so perhaps it is better not to think about it at all.

Freedom to what?

I don't think that's true, though. The fact of abundance, the end of the struggle for material survival, is a challenge to every culture, whether one contronts it on an individual or social level. We face "freedom from" the traditional limits of material and social scarcity. That is a massive change from the lot of humanity for all the thousands of generations before we solved the "economic problem".

Since the 1960s, many of the traditional limits in society have been lifted. What have we achieved with it? TV and the welfare office.

We have abundance. Then the question is - what do we actually want? And "Freedom from" in isolation doesn't say anything at all about that. It suffers the traditional liberal blindspot about where preferences and tastes and wants and desires and pleasure actually come from.

How do people find what they want, especially when older cultural institutions like the churches are in decline? What cultural influences or standards influence what people want to do with their lives after it becomes genuinely a matter of choice? Iyengar doesn't go into this.

For example, we looked some time ago at economist Tibor Scitovsky's work. People want the right level of stimulation, he argues, but it has to be genuinely novel stimulation, not simply quantitatively more. How do we achieve a system where there is more genuine choice, rather than people running faster and faster on hamster wheels for more of the same?


But at the same time, simply accepting traditional or collective notions of what "freedom to" means seems alien to our tradition in the West, and at risk from technological and cultural change. There is an impoverished group of choices for "freedom to".

In the past, "freedom to" has often meant spoilt aristocrats fighting futile dramas of status and prestige and honor, or rich trust fund kids subsiding into drugs and nihilism. It has meant religious extremism and monastric austerity and self-denial. At present, it often means crystal meth in small towns and people thinking of the office cubicle as a second home. In practice, it can lead to alcoholism and divorce and loneliness and pursuit of celebrity. As John Stuart Mill once pointed out, much rests on the quality of what we want.


There is, in fact, a longer history to these ideas. "Freedom from" is analagous to "liberty", whereas "freedom to" is more consonant with older ideas of "freedom", where being free has a positive meaning. (This reminds me of one of David Hackett Fisher's books, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas (America: A Cultural History)which I must look at again. ) America was at the forefront of liberty in the eighteenth century, with lingering social consequences. It ought to be at the forefront of what freedom means now.

Everyone has to answer the question of "what next?". Perhaps the Woodstock Festival or the ABC Fall Line-up or the Google free snackbar in their Silicon Valley offices is the highest point people will ever achieve. Perhaps not. We do not discuss what we should aspire to any more, beyond egailtarianism.

 

"Freedom to" is not necessarily egalitarian or traditionalist

Iyengar's conception - and the traditional view - of "freedom to" is too limited. "Freedom to" is not necessarily socialist or egalitarian. It is not necessarily about minimal provision for all, or Rawlsian maximin welfarism. After all, we've seen that Aristotle's account of the good life has been criticized since for being so unconcerned with equality.

Instead, I think this is an example of where we have taken such a wrong turn. As soon as any suggestion of material sufficiency or abundance has appeared, the first response has been equal distribution. It seems to set off an egalitarian mania, in terms of welfarism and rights and taxation. Yet egalitarianism is not the only vision of the good life, or indeed, a particularly inspiring or just one.

There are deep potential problems with "freedom to", particulalty if people are coerced into a state vision of what it means. But once "freedom from" has been achieved, the only alternative to more discussion of "freedom to" is an unthinking default socialism or nihilism. We need a new conception of "freedom to" that will also correspond to an answer to the conundrum of "value" in economics which we were discussing recently.

I think that has to be centered on people developing their skills and capacitiies to their full potential, and that has to be connected to a conception of virtue and the good life.


We'll look at more of the book tomorrow.

 

 

 

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