Choice has become a central aspect of middle-and upper-class life in many societies in the modern world. Even in India, due to rapid economic development in the past decade, the practice and discourse of choice has become increasingly prominent. But what are the consequences of the proliferation of choice in modern society? Is the act of “choosing” a universal good, the route to individual freedom—or are there limits to the benefits that choice has to offer? Might choice have some negative consequences for society that have until now not been recognized?
Extensive research in experimental psychology has found that choice has positive outcomes for individuals: Americans with more opportunities to choose are more motivated, happier, healthier, and better able to cope with life challenges than those with fewer choices. For example, in one study, American children who were given a choice among activities—in this case, a choice among puzzles to work on—were more engaged and spent more time solving the puzzles than children who were asked to do the same puzzle without being offered a choice.
Choice clearly has benefits for individuals, but what about its effects on society, or on people’s relationships and perceptions of others? Our research reveals that choice has a number of previously unrecognized negative consequences for society.
In a series of experiments, we found that when Americans are exposed to the idea of choice, they are more likely to oppose public policies that promote societal benefits, such as reducing environmental pollution and obesity. Choice also makes Americans more likely to blame people for uncontrollable negative life events (such as people who get into an accident or who have a heart attack), and even reduces their empathy for disadvantaged others.
Research in India, however, reveals that choice has neither the same positive consequences for individuals, nor the same negative consequences for society. For example, research by Ritu Tripathi at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and Daniel Cervone at the University of Illinois at Chicago examined whether choice motivates Indians to work on a task. They found that Indian corporate professionals were willing to volunteer as much as 25 minutes for an unpaid online task when they were directed to volunteer as much time as possible, but only 5 minutes when they were asked to choose how much time they wanted to volunteer. The researchers argue that performing one’s duties and meeting obligations is more energizing for Indians than focusing on personal choice.
While Tripathi and Cervone showed that the positive consequences of choice do not occur in India, we tested whether or not the negative consequences of choice applied to Indian settings. While our research found that thinking in terms of choice makes Americans less sympathetic toward a poor child, upon conducting the same experiment in India, we found that choice did not reduce Indian students’ empathy.
Why does choice have such different consequences, both positive and negative, in the West and in India? We suspect that differing cultural ideas about what it means to be a good person is at the root. In the US, choice, self-expression, personal control and independence are defining features of what it means to be a good, normal, or ideal person. Given that choice in the US is tied to ideas of individual freedom and personal responsibility, choice may lead Americans to focus on individuals or their own personal actions and to pay less attention to the larger society.
In India, in contrast to the US, individuality, independence, and personal self-expression have not been historically significant concerns. Instead, Joan Miller, a psychologist at the New School of Social Research, has shown that many Indians are more concerned about meeting their responsibilities and obligations to other people than in expressing themselves through unique choices.
With India’s rapid economic development in the past decade, however, the proliferation of choice is expanding significantly. Indians with disposable income have more and more choices available to them every year.
For example, while Mumbai had only one modern mall in the year 2000 (the Crossroads Mall in Haji Ali), more than 125 malls were either already constructed or being constructed in Mumbai in 2010. Not only are Indians making more and more consumer choices, “choice” is becoming increasingly prominent in the nation’s public discourse. Kingfisher | Airlines’© slogan says, “The choice is simple,” while Rajnigandha© advertises flavoured tobacco by claiming that it is “The choice of young India.” The telephone giant Airtel© goes a step further by urging customers to “Express themselves” through their choices.
The expanding practice and discourse of choice in India raises an important question: What changes might the proliferation of choice produce in India, both for individuals and for society as a whole?
Despite there being more choices for Indians, our research indicates that choice still means something quite different for Indians than it does for Americans. As it is now, choice in India does not have the same associations with independence, personal responsibility, and control. As a consequence, choice in India has neither the positive consequences for individuals, nor the negative consequences for society.
We believe this could be because choice is a relatively new focus for Indians. The concept of choice is probably not very salient to individual and collective consciousness in Indian society right now, but may acquire significance over time. It is up to Indians to discern what meaning they give to choice—whether they use choice to further their individual goals without concern for society or whether they use choice to motivate their decisions for long-term societal welfare.
Krishna Savani, Nicole M. Stephens & Hazel Rose Markus are, respectively, adjunct assistant professor at Graduate School of Business, Columbia University, assistant professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and professor in behavioural sciences at Stanford University.
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