Monday, October 10, 2011

Brain and feelings but also Others

Sheena Iyengar, professor of business at Columbia University, was born in India into a highly religious Sikh family.  What would you say are the odds that an obedient and devout young Indian woman, who goes blind in childhood, would wind up a professor of business in New York City?

She describes her upbringing, her cultural surroundings as a child, and the big change in her thinking wrought by schooling in America in her book, The Art of Choosing.  The possibility of individual choice in life, even the moral force that one ought to make one's own choices is not universally accepted in all parts of the world.  Having been a full participant in a religion that specified a great many rules for the correct way to live and being part of a different society where the individual is usually assumed to be the locus of that person's major life decisions gives her a wonderfully valuable perspective on human life.  Iyengar doesn't mince words as she takes apart some of our most commonly accepted principles, such as forces that focus on each person being able to decide where to live, how to make a living, whom to marry and much more.  She asks, "What kind of freedom is it when one is forced to choose?"

Iyengar has increased my sensitivity to matters of choice but so has the current rage for social networks, social connections and awareness of people's relations to others.  I listened to an ad that was trying to sell me a vehicle.  The message was clear: you make the decision and we will provide you will all the information needed to do so.  But Iyengar and Facebook have alerted me to more factors in our lives than our minds and our reasoning.  Her example of her own mother and father meeting each other for the first time in their own marriage ceremony grips me.  (I have since read that there are fewer divorces among arranged marriages than self-chosen ones.  That is certainly not the only measure of the success of the two ways of getting married but it seems surprising.)  

As I listened to that ad, I could picture a man weighing and calculating re-sale value, MPG, safety and other important matters and then buying the car that comes in the color his wife likes.  I can certainly picture a father saying to his son that the dad will be deeply disappointed if the boy chooses some other college than Old U. 

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