Usually, the Times's "At Home With" columns piss me off, with their descriptions of palatial apartments and twee owners. But the story of Sheena Iyengar, a blind choice expert who furnishes her home by consensus, is downright fascinating.
Any regular Times reader knows the "At Home With" formula: rom-com-ready job (jewelry designer/cartoonist/dog-lingerie-creator) + neighborhood you can't afford + really nice cabinets = exercise in bourgeois envy. I'm sure I'm not the first to imagine a post-Madoff version of the feature, which would follow the evictions of previously well-heeled subjects and their eventual relocation to Bushwick. Columbia University business prof Sheena Iyengar fits the formula perfectly, with the crucial difference that she's actually way more interesting than her apartment. For one thing, she's responsible for the famous "jam study," in which she found that shoppers with fewer jam options were more likely to purchase the condiment (an issue Carol Channing was looking into back in 1985). The Times's Penelope Green notes, "The study - more is less! - made Dr. Iyengar a darling of corporate America and a celebrity in social science circles." And indeed, Iyengar's work made an appearance Barry Schwartz's popular book The Paradox of Choice, which claimed that, "clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and even clinical depression."
The jam study actually proved hard to replicate, but if nothing else it put a spotlight on how we choose and whether or not our choices make us happy. As Green's piece makes clear, Iyengar's blindness — she was born with retinitis pigmentosa and lost her sight by high school — effects some of her decision-making, most obviously in the area of decor. She says, "What I do is aim for consensus. That's my rule of how to choose." With decorating, that means enlisting the help of her husband, three research assistants, and occasionally her personal trainer. Every piece of furniture is "previewed by her committee." She remarks, "What's great about getting other people's comments is you learn the problems. You can get so enamored of something you don't give enough weight to its drawbacks. You have to invite criticism."
Consensus choice makes a certain amount of sense in the case of decorating, since Iyengar herself can't see what she's buying. But as a friend of mine pointed out, it might work less well in other areas, like love. On the other hand, Iyengar's mother-in-law, if not Iyengar herself, sought consensus in that area — when her son wanted to marry outside their religion, she consulted an astrologer, "who told her not to fret; the couple had been married in seven past lives and would be married in seven future ones as well." And who among us has not sought advice on a difficult relationship?
Of course, whether we heed this advice is another question, and ultimately whether we're satisfied with our choices may matter more than whether we make the "right" ones. Taking advice you don't quite agree with can leave you feeling out of sorts even if it turns out well, and if you go with, as they say, your gut, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did what you thought was right. My dad once gave me the following sobering but solid writing advice: never change a story just to please someone else, because if it never gets published, all you'll have is a story you don't like. So in life: the trick is probably less to choose well than to feel good about your choices, because at least then you'll like your story.
Then again, maybe seeking consensus is how Iyengar "goes with her gut." She only seeks the advice of a trusted few, and even then she says, "I don't always go with their opinions." Perhaps Iyengar's arrived at a process that makes her happy with her decisions — even when she can't actually see their effects. Which might be a goal worth striving for — even if it lands you in the "At Home With" column.
Image via NYT.