Saturday, July 16, 2011


319. It is a mid-summer Saturday, and Brussels has been raining endlessly. I am sorting through boxes of memories, throwing out items that are no longer memorable, or even recognizable. The free and surprisingly well-designed notebook (mini Post-Its in five different colours and a plastic sleeve attached on the inside of the hardcover) that came in a conference bag last July can go. Its first page -- the one and only used page throughout the whole 48-parallel-session conference -- can stay. On the page, a hand-drawn picture of the lecture theatre for a plenary talk: on the stage, a tiny, supposedly fragile figure, labelled John Nash; in the crowded audience, a few enlarged heads, seated in a row, each with his or her own special features emphasized, completed with -- no doubt an attempt to help my intended viewers at the time to recognize which head belongs to whom -- arrows and names. Me, CS, Claire, M., C., "the husband", a reference to C.'s husband, whose name I obviously did not catch. July 2010, Lisbon without rain.

320. Sheena Iyengar was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of three, lost the ability to read at the age of 12, lost sight completely except for the perception of light at the age of 17, received a PhD in social psychology from Stanford at the age of 28, and has been an international expert on the study of choice ever since.

An except from her TED biography. 

We all think we're good at making choices; many of us even enjoy making them. Sheena Iyengar looks deeply at choosing and has discovered many surprising things about it. For instance, her famous "jam study," done while she was a grad student, quantified a counterintuitive truth about decisionmaking -- that when we're presented with too many choices, like 24 varieties of jam, we tend not to choose anything at all.

An excerpt from her TED talk on the art of choosing.  

Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Sheena, there is a detail about your biography that we have not written in the program book. But by now it's evident to everyone in this room. You're blind. And I guess one of the questions on everybody's mind is: How does that influence your study of choosing, because that's an activity that for most people is associated with visual inputs like aesthetics and color and so on?

Sheena Iyengar: Well, it's funny that you should ask that, because one of the things that's interesting about being blind is you actually get a different vantage point when you observe the way sighted people make choices. And as you just mentioned, there's lots of choices out there that are very visual these days. Yeah, I -- as you would expect -- get pretty frustrated by choices like what nail polish to put on, because I have to rely on what other people suggest. And I can't decide. And so one time I was in a beauty salon, and I was trying to decide between two very light shades of pink. And one was called "Ballet Slippers." And the other one was "Adorable." And so I asked these two ladies. And the one lady told me, "Well, you should definitely wear 'Ballet Slippers.'" "Well, what does it look like?" "Well, it's a very elegant shade of pink." "Okay, great." The other lady tells me to wear "Adorable." "What does it look like?" "It's a glamorous shade of pink." And so I asked them, "Well, how do I tell them apart? What's different about them?" And they said, "Well, one is elegant, the other one's glamorous." Okay, we got that. And the only thing they had consensus on: well, if I could see them, I would clearly be able to tell them apart. 

And what I wondered was whether they were being affected by the name or the contents of the color. So I decided to do a little experiment. So I brought these two bottles of nail polish into the laboratory, and I stripped the labels off. And I brought women into the laboratory, and I asked them, "Which one would you pick?" 50 percent of the women accused me of playing a trick, of putting the same color nail polish in both those bottles. At which point you start to wonder who the trick's really played on. Now of the women that could tell them apart, when the labels were off, they picked "Adorable," and when the labels were on they picked "Ballet Slippers." So as far as I can tell, a rose by any other name probably does look different and maybe even smells different.

321. Do you have any professional working experience in a developing country, I am asked, on the form for the Volunteer Lecturer Program. This question, apparently, is to determine whether I have reasonable expectations of the living conditions in such a country. No, I write, but I grew up in Vietnam for the first fifteen years of my life.

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