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The Culture of Choice

New America MediaSandip Roy


Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” But in America we might say instead “I choose, therefore I am.” The holidays are all about choosing the right present. From a sandwich to Medicare Part D we are forever trying to choose the right option. But in a country as diverse as America, does choice mean the same thing for everyone? Do Asian Americans choose the same way as Caucasians? Sheena Iyengar is a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of the book The Art of Choosing. She spoke to Sandip Roy on the radio program New America Now.

You did an experiment in an elementary school in San Francisco of Asian American children and Anglo American children. What was the impetus of the study?

When I was Ph D student I was studying Japanese. So I went to Japan for a couple of years. A strange thing happened to me on my first night. When I ordered this cup of green tea the waiter brought it over and I asked for some sugar. The waiter said politely we don’t put sugar in our green tea. I said I understand in Japan you are not supposed to put sugar in your green tea. But I am an American, could you forgive me and let me have some. The waiter hesitated and I insisted. Then the waiter went and talked to the manager. Finally the manager comes and says “Sorry, we don’t have sugar.” I said OK, I’ll order a cup of coffee.

And I get the cup of coffee and on the saucer are sitting two packets of sugar! At first I am outraged. He is violating my rights as a customer. But in Japan they were protecting me from committing the ultimate faux pas – drinking my tea incorrectly. That was my way of understanding that choice has very different scripts in different cultures.

In your experiment you divided the kids into three groups. The first group is given the freedom to choose their puzzle and the color of their marker. The second group is shown all the puzzles and markers but told you need to work on the animal puzzle but use the blue marker. And the third group is told we asked your mothers earlier and your mothers want you to work on the animal puzzle and the blue marker. What did you find?

For the American kids, they performed the best when they got to choose. Some of these kids were outraged when they were told that we asked their mothers. By contrast the Asian kids performed best when it was for their mother, next when they chose for themselves and just as badly when it was the experimenter who they had never met. Here again, for the American the choice was all about who I am and what I want and nobody else can answer that question for me. For Asians having their mothers choose for them was really comforting. It built confidence that the correct choice was made.

If the Asian kids were more “mommy” and the American kids were more “me” where do other groups like Blacks and Latinos fall in the mommy-me spectrum?

We know from other studies that Latinos are in between Asians and Americans in that they do value relationships but not as strongly as Asians. African Americans, interestingly enough, are very similar to Anglo Americans, at least in their desire for choice and their reactions to choice.

Then you did an experiment with American and Japanese students in Kyoto. Did changing the location and age change how choice was regarded?

We asked people to jot down all the choices they made today. If you look at Japanese and American students who had the same exact classes, the Americans list four times more choice in a day than the Japanese. So the Americans think the fact that they woke up when the alarm clock went off as a choice, brushing their teeth as a choice. For the Japanese that’s a script that they have to follow. The bar is much higher. (Choice) has to be what I wear to a party, to some extent whom they marry.

It’s not just about how choice is regarded from culture to culture, but does culture affect what we regard as choice in the first place?

Absolutely. I give you a set of ten sodas. Do you see that as one choice or ten choices? That varies tremendously as a function of your culture. Asians wouldn’t see that as a choice, because they are wondering what is the host expecting me to choose. Americans see that as ten choices. Members of ex-communist countries see that as one choice – soda. They see the differences between the brands as utterly meaningless.

Your parents were second cousins. You and your sister are both blind from a genetic condition. Did that make your parents regret the choice of an arranged marriage between cousins?

I don’t think so. I think they just saw that as their fate. My mom always said what did I do in my last life. What did your father do in his last life. Something must have gone wrong. I don’t think she ever pinned the blame on the choice of the spouse.

But after your father died when you were very young, your mother chose to live on here with your sister and you.

After my parents realized I was blind and my sister was blind, they understood they could not go back to India. My father really wanted to go back. But they understood we would have a better chance at life here. My parents were traditional Sikhs, but one thing they did bring with them, was this notion of choice being a golden thing. And this was the land of choice.

Sikhism comes with a lot of rules. Did that change your idea of choice?

Because I was going back and forth between American culture and Sikh culture, there was constant struggle between whether you are supposed to think of your choices in terms of duty fulfillment or personal preference fulfillment. Do I put my hair the way my friends are telling me to do or do I keep my hair long?

Are you saying where you live mitigates the effect of culture when it comes to choice. You did not choose an arranged marriage.

That is true. But I did consciously choose to marry an Indian. That was a conscious choice because I felt that if I married an American my entire life would continue to be two cultures in conflict all the time.

In America we put choice on a pedestal. You did a famous jam study in Palo Alto. What did you find?

We did a study in Draeger’s grocery store. We set up a tasting booth where we put out six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam. We looked at two things. In which case are more customers likely to stop and sample some jam? In fact, 60 percent stopped when there were 24 and 40 percent stopped when there were six.

Then we looked at in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam. This is where the results turn out to be the opposite of what we think. Of the people who stopped for the 24 jams, only 3 percent bought a jar. Of the people who stopped when there were six jams on display, 30 percent bought a jar. If you do the math, people were six times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they saw six than if they saw 24.

If you overlaid ethnicity, would the results vary?

We have been looking at that. If you go to India and pick sari shopping, the ladies have hundreds of choices. Yet Indian women don’t seem to get overwhelmed. What’s happening is that they often shop in groups. They don’t perceive the choice in terms of personal fulfillment. They perceive it as finding the correct choice, the one that won’t violate social norms. So the moment one woman shakes her head no, the next sari comes down. So they allow a collective choosing to winnow down the options to a small subset. And the woman who is going to buy the sari is comfortable having other women advise her.

On the other hand, when you look at Indians choosing ice creams at Baskin Robbins, they are just as perplexed as Americans would be. That’s why 50 percent of Americans eat plain vanilla, strawberry or chocolate.

Is there a magic number that our brains are equipped to handle when it comes to choice?

In terms of new things you have to keep track of, its about seven plus or minus two.

You also looked at religion and choice. Here you looked at how happy do choices make you. How did that play out?

I was raised a Sikh. I get to college and thought I was free. And I cut my hair. And I was taking this course with Martin Seligman about learned helplessness and I thought that is exactly what religion does. It makes you helpless. So I told him wouldn’t people of more fundamentalist faiths become more depressed because they have so many more rules imposed upon them and so much less choice and control over their lives. So we surveyed people from nine different religions – from fundamentalist faiths to liberal ones.

We found in fact that the liberals were more likely to become depressed. We found that the liberals were more pessimistic about the future of their lives. That showed me for the first time was that constraints on choice could give people a feeling of more control over their lives.

Did it make you embrace your faith more fervently?

No , religion only works if you buy into it.

Does not being able to see sometimes you make you feel free from the tyranny of choice?

That’s a hard question. Because I wasn’t sighted, that in a way made making a choice much easier. If I want to pursue a choice it has to be something I am really dedicated to, that I am willing to pursue with great effort. It’s not something I can afford to do on a whim.

When you applied to go to Wharton and you had to write about who you would like to have dinner with, you chose Scarlett O’Hara. Why her?

I really liked the fact that Scarlett O’Hara had a lot of chutzpah. She made a lot of mistakes in her life but she always kept going. That is the power of choice. It’s the ultimate tool, in fact the only tool, that allows us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow.

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From “Hope” to Spam: How Obama Lost the Digital Generation

EDITOR’S NOTE: After Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, many predicted that his online campaign—especially his digital outreach to young people—was the beginning of a new way of raising money and winning elections. What happened? To find out, New America Media interviewed Bay Area young people who were extremely involved in the Obama campaign two years ago but are less engaged in 2010, as well as analysts and activists who are trying to understand what went wrong.

Zev Karlin-Neumann is vice president of political affairs for Campaigns at Stanford Democrats, the largest political group on campus.

When Obama was running for president, everyone was interested in donating and getting engaged. Using social networks and online tools to mobilize people was effective only because this sense of euphoria already existed. Plus, people had to make a simpler choice during the presidential elections and there was a definitive D-Day when things came to an end. But now, it seems endless.

Only a few people get excited about policy issues, even those issues that directly affect their lives. Without enthusiasm, it’s very hard to get people to open their wallets and donate. And even the most jazzed up social marketing strategies fall flat without this.

Askia Tariq West is an African-American and Muslim who recently graduated from Stanford and now works for a major consulting firm in McLean, Virginia.

We thought we were changing the world; now we know better. Few races this year, if any, have the historical significance of the 2008 presidential election. In addition, we’ve been disheartened by the vitriolic opposition to everything Obama’s tried to do and disillusioned by Obama’s shortcomings.

In 2008, social media and new media mobilization had a certain cool factor. Generation Y felt a special ownership of social and new media campaigns . Now, even old-guard, old-fogie insider candidates have online campaigns, and it’s just not as hip to engage people [using social media] anymore.

It feels like there is a wave of hate and uncertainty and fear sweeping the country, and social media –online mobilization –lends itself to hopeful tenor buzz rather than preparing for the worst, as many of us are.

Sarahi Constantine was a student leader for the 2008 Obama campaign. She will graduate from Stanford University next spring.

I have stopped reading all the emails from the President’s office. Some of my friends directly put those messages in their spam folders. I haven’t reached that point yet. I simply push the emails off to a separate folder to read when I have time, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet.

There needs to be more transparency for where money goes in campaign donations. When Obama was running for president, we knew all the funds would be utilized for his campaign. Now that clarity is missing in other campaigns.

In 2008, Angela Petrella organized a dance party fundraiser for presidential candidate Barak Obama at McSweeney’s publishing house. Over 100 people attended, each donating $100. A total of $15,000 was raised for the campaign.

“I’m middle class, so $100 was a lot of money, but giving money away almost felt empowering. Every single person donated $100 dollars because we wanted [Obama to win so badly]. I was willing to eat ramen noodles for a month, but how long can a person do that?

If it’s just one presidential election, I can focus energy on just that…but then there was the Haiti [relief] outpour. When I receive email after email for so many causes, I don’t get inspired to do anything. I just feel annoyed and indifferent.

Tristan O’Tierney, along with nine friends, created the Obama ’08 iPhone application, with a “Call Friend” feature that automatically pulled the phone numbers of iPhone users’ friends in key swing states. The app was used to make 39,802 volunteer calls.

I’m not sure why young people aren’t trying to go after the Tea Party movement more. In my case, I haven’t had the time.

The Tea Party movement is centered on misinformation and negative speech, neither of which I’d really like to acknowledge because doing so gives them the very attention they want.

Jamilah King is the News Editor of Colorlines.com. She frequently writes on race and youth issues.

What appealed to folks in 2008 was that the outreach was carefully targeted and effective. And that was largely because the Obama campaign provided us with an alternative message to what we often heard in the mainstream press, or from other campaigns.

I think the genius of social networking, and why it became so popular, was because it allowed for people to control their interactions and the amount of information they received. Now, it’s different. Social networks— especially Facebook— have become places that are more about selling products and ideas than interacting with the select few you want to be in touch with.

[The emails from the campaigns this year have been] a bit too wonky to make an impact on people who aren’t plugged in. Typically, the emails got to people who already know enough to be engaged.

Now that Obama’s in office, he should be more concerned with creatively controlling the overall narrative rather than encouraging users to post buttons on people’s Facebook walls. It’s true that he’s battling against the Tea Party and Fox News for the minds of voters, but the [administration’s] message seems to have become more mechanic than passionate. And that goes totally against the framework that got him elected in the first place.

Maxwell Szabo is a San Francisco native who graduated from UC Santa Cruz. He is president of San Francisco Young Democrats.

The main difference between the 2008 election and the midterm election is the top of the ticket. It was awe-inspiring Obama versus John McCain. Though McCain was a really nice man, he didn’t appeal to young people.

Now look at Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. I’m strongly convinced that Jerry Brown’s positions are health care, the environment, and the economy are much more favorable for young people. But people in my generation didn’t know who Jerry Brown was or what issues he stands for. I wasn’t even alive during his first term as governor. Young people are most interested in what will happen with Prop. 23 and Prop 19.

[Still, our organization has] grown tremendously since 2008. A lot of people got interested in politics after the election. We’ve done better in fundraising, and 200 new people have joined our organization over the last two years. We are banging on doors and going out to the community. We dropped 30,000 hangers in Districts 2, 8, and 10.

Cheryl Contee blogs under the pseudonym “Jill Tubman” for Jack & Jill Politics, a site started in 2006 to provide diverse viewpoints of tax-paying, hard-working, engaged and patriotic African-American citizens.

I don’t think the youth voice has gone quiet since 2008, but rather they have moved on to other ideas and causes.

Young people have been hit hard by the recession, and it’s difficult to focus on politics when you’re working three jobs to make ends meet. I think we’ll see young people flex their muscles again in the 2010 general election.

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New Distress Index Measures SF Residents’ Pain in Downturn

Some economists and business groups say that the Great Recession is over, but how do communities really know if they’re moving out of the recession or falling behind?
Much of the data the news media rely on to document the course of the recession and path to recovery relies on big trends — today the stock market was up, unemployment was up, foreclosures were up, the consumer price index was down. But how does the ordinary person know where he or she fits into that picture, let alone their city or region?
A ground-breaking new tool that measures the real-world impact of the recession shows that in San Francisco, at least, the worst downturn in 70 years isn’t just continuing—it may be getting worse.
The new San Francisco Distress Index, which assembles 11 types of monthly economic indicators such as foreclosure rates and food pantry visits, has risen 11 percent since June 2009—the month when, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. recession supposedly bottomed out.

The Index, a joint project of San Francisco–based New America Media and the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Equality, also shows that the Great Recession has been much harder on San Francisco than even the dot-com bust a decade ago. Although the downturn of 2000-2003 is widely recalled as one of the most devastating in San Francisco’s history, the current level of economic distress as measured by the Index is nearly 40 percent higher than at the worst point of the dot-com bust.
Yet the reality of this extreme distress is going largely unnoticed in San Francisco and the rest of the country. The idea behind the Index, which took six months to develop, said NAM Executive Director Sandy Close, is to “make sure no community or individual left behind by the recovery becomes invisible.”
The NAM/Stanford Distress Index is believed to be the first economic measure of its kind in the United States. Stanford researcher Chris Wimer said the tool is unique for two reasons: the way it assembles a number of types of monthly economic data into one broad index, and the way it focuses on just one city and its residents.
Wimer said that many widely reported economic statistics—such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s report last month that 1 in 7 Americans were living in poverty as of 2009—are “junk” because the data is collected so infrequently and is often based on outmoded ways of measuring economic well-being.
“There is a poverty of poverty statistics,” he said.
The 11 economic indicators that make up the NAM/Stanford Distress Index include jobless rates, bankruptcies, food stamp applications, food bank pantry visits, and enrollments in such safety-net programs as the city’s Healthy San Francisco health care-access program and the state’s CalWORKS cash assistance program.
“The Dow has been going up, but we all know people are continuing to hurt,” said Aaron Glantz, who played a key role at NAM in developing the index. “We wanted a real-time way to track the effects of the recession as people are really living it.”

Glantz said the goal was to include monthly data about “the different aspects of living that are essential to people,” such as food, shelter, and income. “When these things become hard [to access], people really become distressed,” he said. NAM and Stanford also wanted to include data that would show how the recession has affected both the middle-class and the poor, he said.

The monthly data assembled by NAM and Stanford paint a sobering picture of how the recession has hit San Francisco, which is widely thought to have weathered the downturn much better than many California cities and counties.
According to the Index, the Great Recession started to be felt in San Francisco in mid-2006, a full 18 months before what economists say was its official beginning, in December 2007. The pain has increased dramatically since June 2008, with few signs of abating.
The number of bankruptcy filings this past June, for example, was 76 percent higher than in June 2008. In the same period, foreclosures jumped 51 percent and requests for homeless assistance rose 32 percent.
This past June, more than 100,000 households in San Francisco visited one of the city’s food banks, up 52 percent from two years before.
Close said she hopes the Distress Index will serve as a model for a new way of measuring poverty in local communities in real-time. “In this instance we’ve applied the Index to San Francisco, but as a tool, the Index, using local indicators, can be applied anywhere in the country.” She said NAM hopes to develop similar Distress Indexes for cities throughout the Bay Area and California and to use them to document, not just how the continuing recession is being felt in different parts of the state, but the economy’s eventual recovery.
Sandra R. Hernandez, chief executive officer of the San Francisco Foundation, said the Index buttresses her organization’s decision to funnel $5 million into three key areas: preventing foreclosures, creating jobs, and strengthening the city’s safety net. The San Francisco Foundation provided funding for creation of the Index, as did the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation.
The NAM/Stanford Distress Index will be updated monthly, with the results available on NAM’s website. Wimer’s report on the Index, “Measuring Economic Distress in San Francisco,” can be found at http://inequality.com.

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