The Art of Choosing (or, Mad Men redux)

As some of you know, I’m in a bit of an ongoing conversation/debate about the uneasy marriage of democracy and capitalism (while still trying to clarify my own position on the issue). It began during a live audio interview with the Future of Education’s Steve Hargadon, and continued in the comments section of an Op-Ed I wrote about the popular AMC show Mad Men, which I describe as “a quintessentially American show about disembodied desire and emotion,” featuring a set of characters who “desire only the freedom to pursue whatever it is they cannot have.”

Today, as if on cue, my friend Steve Moore sent me a link to a recent TED talk by Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar, who was discussing the core ideas in her new book, The Art of Choosing.

I’ve provided a link to the video below, because Dr. Iyengar’s research relates directly to the issues affecting the behavior of the characters in Mad Men — namely, the increasing meaningless of choice (the central right in a democracy) when it becomes primarily defined by the products we can purchase, not the ideas we can articulate (or the range of emotions we can feel).

The value of choice, Iyengar insists, depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. Yet what has happened in the U.S. (the origins of which, to some degree, we see depicted in the early 1960s ad agency culture in Mad Men) is that instead of making better decisions as the number of choices available to us has grown, we have become overwhelmed by the volume, and the emptiness, of such individualized decisions. In this state, choice “no longer offers opportunities but imposes constraints. It is not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae.”

This is the discomfort I was trying to articulate when I described the disembodied desire of the characters in Mad Men. Iyengar puts it this way: “The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American Dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much — freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says you can have anything, everything. But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes, and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways.

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  1. Posted August 6, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Sam! Great conversation!

    Huge aha moment for me. The discussions of democracy and capitalism both bring us back to “culture,” an ingredient that was prominent in the formation of both aspirations–and which we often forget as a core ingredient. Could it be that this is what’s really bothering you? If so, I AGREE! Because education is at the heart of culture, and that’s what you and I have been so hard at work on. Is this on the right track? I’m not trying to over-simplify a complex issue, but Sheena’s talk (and the great work of Dan Ariely and others) are arguments for a stronger commitment to better education.

    What I didn’t see was an argument against choice, but for a better and deeper understanding of it. The French doctor/parent dilemma was a great example. While choice is hard, I can’t see any way of giving it up that doesn’t subject us to the dangers of allowing other individuals to start choosing for us and taking away the very protections that seem to me to be such a part of the constitution–and which recognized that that kind of power would carry such a temptation as to be abused.

    Alternatively, Dan Ariely writes about how recognizing an irrational cognitive behavior often strips it of its power, and that would suggest (asgain) more awareness and education.

    I was also intrigued that her definitions of the capitalism/democracy narrative weren’t the same as mine. I don’t think in any way the message should be “unlimited freedom,” but that it is brings me right back to the culture and education piece–which I think this shows what a bad job we’re doing in this regard.

    Sheena’s talk also touched on a HUGE issue for me: not trying to replace one single narrative with another single one, which is what I fear we’re doing with education right now (from compliance-driven, factory model to high-stakes testing).

    Thanks so much for keeping this conversation going!

  2. Sam
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink


    I agree this is not a question of being for or against choice — Iyengar breaks it all down beautifully in her talk. The core question, which is very much about culture, is “Choice to what end?” And yes, I’d say this is the nexus of what we’ve both been trying to get to the center of — the issue is that the choices we now have are very much in the service of our economic system, and the disservice of our capacity to create a more democratic society. And education is the one institution we have with the greatest potential to redirect that (along with the Internet and new technology, which was a question you asked me the other day that I didn’t properly address in our time together). In fact, I’m reading Lessig’s The Future of Ideas right now — have you read it? It’s right up your alley.

    One final thought — amen to your point about the need to stitch together many stories, and not simply replace one mono-narrative with the other. I talked about this in a recent review of the new ed documentary “The Lottery” — and what Gandhi would think about it. When time allows check it out and let me know if the ideas there get at what you’re talking about. It’s at

    So grateful for this exchange, btw. Thanks for staying in it with me.

  3. Posted August 6, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Future of Ideas yet… Yikes, so much to read, so little time!

    I loved your “Lottery” post, and . I’m wondering if it was actually what led me to you. If not, it was something I read at the time that really resonated with me.

    One of my favorite books ever is A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi (published by one of my heroes, Steve Piersanti at BK Books). I’m also a huge fan of the Arbinger material (Leadership and Self-Deception, The Anatomy of Peace), which I think are highly influenced by Martin Buber. It’s my hope that the interview extends respect to all who passionately care about education. That’s been my goal (and, in part, the reality of someone who is interviewing others who have thought deeply about issues that I may not even have been aware of). Thanks for reminding me of that.

    As I tried to express at the beginning of your interview, your book so challenged and excited me mentally that it was an exhausting experience. It was a unique experience. Thanks to you for being so passionately devoted to making a difference.

  4. Posted August 6, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Hi Steve H. and Sam!

    I’m right with Steve H. on the importance of understanding the nature of our experience with choice. Sheena’s talk focused on inquiry and not indictment of one way of learning, and I value that scientific perspective. I think there is a habit in our society of polarizing issues into either “good” or “bad.” The binary nature of that reflex is damaging. We need to build a habit of continual learning about the things we value as well as those we do not yet understand.

    I’m loving the Mad Men tie-ins as well Sam!

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