Grave Decisions

Columbia psychologist Sheena Iyengar applies her expertise in human decision making to the most difficult question of all.

by David J. Craig Published Winter 2010-11
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Illustrations by James SteinbergElements of style

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar was raised in a strict Sikh household in Flushing, Queens. As a girl, she kept her dark hair long and uncut, wore special undergarments at all times, even in the shower, and attended temple three times a week. As is customary among Sikhs, there was talk of an arranged marriage.

Then, when Iyengar was a teenager, she went blind, the result of a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. She also began rebelling: She wore hip clothing and stopped attending religious services. After a high-school guidance counselor told her that attending a community college was the best option for a blind person, Iyengar’s anger helped motivate her to get accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Governed by so many rules and restrictions — religious, cultural, and physical — Iyengar “became acutely aware of the pleasures, as well as the frustrations, of freedom and its limitations,” she says. “It’s all rooted in my upbringing.”

Nowadays, Iyengar’s personal life is informed by her work. Consider the way she selects her clothes and the furnishings in her apartment: by enlisting the advice of friends she trusts to translate her personality into the visual language of fashion and home decor.

“I listen to lots of people’s interpretations of who I am and how I should look,” she says. “I choose to delegate — the same way most of us are happy to relinquish our dinner-music choice to Pandora and our wine choices to the New York Times Wine Club.”

But doesn’t everybody crave autonomy when it comes to something as intimate as personal style?

“It depends on whether you see your personality as existing apart from other people or as a product of your relationship with people,” Iyengar says. “Most of us think the way we see ourselves represents some deep truth, but very often we’re wrong. What does it mean if I consider myself to be a great worker if my boss gives me a critical performance review? Do I ignore him? I think that when we open ourselves up to other people’s opinions and advice, we learn things about ourselves. And then we can change in ways that ultimately give us more control over how people see us. In a sense, we become more free. It’s possible that my blindness helped me see this, but I think this is a part of the human condition.”

Flying solo

About two years ago, Iyengar, along with Simona Botti, of the London Business School, and Kristina Orfali, of the Columbia Center for Bioethics, set out to explore the psychological costs associated with removing a family member from life support. Specifically, they looked at 19 couples in the United States and France who had made the agonizing decision to let a premature infant die.

“Before this, we’d studied how people make pretty routine decisions,” says Iyengar. “This was going to open up some dramatic new questions.”

All of the parents interviewed for the study had decided to take their babies off life support within a few weeks of their births. The difference was that the French parents had followed the advice of doctors, whereas the American parents had been left to make the decision on their own.

Iyengar and her colleagues wanted to know: How did the parents cope emotionally afterward? Did they feel they’d done the right thing? Did they wish that a doctor had given them more or less advice?

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2009, showed that the American parents, three months after their child’s death, struggled more with feelings of guilt, doubt, anger, depression, and resentment. “The emotional trauma was incredible,” says Iyengar. “It was straight out of the novel Sophie’s Choice. They’d say things like, ‘I feel like I played a role in an execution,’ and ‘I feel like I’m not grieving enough, like something’s wrong with me,’ and ‘The hospital workers wanted to torture me.’”

The American parents were also haunted by what-ifs, imagining all of the unlikely scenarios in which their child might have been able to survive and lead a normal life. Most of the French parents, in contrast, said they believed that their child’s death was inevitable.

“The French were coping better overall,” Iyengar says. “They’d say, ‘Our child gave us a new perspective on life,’ and ‘No one could have changed this; I don’t blame anyone.’”

The most obvious lesson here, according to Iyengar, is that it’s comforting to receive guidance from an expert in a stressful situation. “When a doctor offers a recommendation, you’ll feel less guilt about what you’re doing,” she says. “You can tell yourself, ‘I’m only doing what the doctors are advising.’”

There were also some surprises. Although the American parents were tormented by having ended their child’s life, they told the researchers that they couldn’t imagine having relinquished that decision to a doctor. “They insisted the choice had to be theirs alone,” says Iyengar, “even as they were trapped by the burden of it.”

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