Today at the MIB School of Management during a course on Cross Cultural Communication in Marketing (by Prof Irena Vida), we were presented with the following video:
It was a TED Talk by Sheen Iyengar, a Columbia University professor on the subject of choice. She asks a number of fascinating questions and provides some interesting answers. Some of the questions are given as examples below:
- Is the desire for choice innate or created by culture?
- Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests?
- How much control do we really have over what we choose?
Fascinating and thought-provoking questions that I am sure not many of us have dared ask ourselves. Let me take it one step further which our Professor presented. In 1725 a chart, the so-called Volkertafel of European stereotypes was published in Germany. The aim of this publication, be it humorous or otherwise, was to be a reference point for the characteristics of the various principal European nationalities.
Looking at another example but with all the nationalities together, they love the following:
Swedes: Delicious Food
Pole: the Nobility/Royalty
In hindsight we know that these are absolutely ridiculous assumptions, but at the time they were probably widespread at the time. The joke of the matter is, things are little better today. The Greeks are lazy, the Spanish don’t work, the Italians are more interested in chasing women and the Germans are forced to foot the bill to bail out Europe. However the question is, in the light of this and coupled with what Professor Iyengar said, do we expect other people to make decisions too based on our assumptions of their characteristics?
In all probability, yes. And this is perhaps where a lot of misunderstanding comes in between different cultures. We just have to think back to the drama that is still been played out in Europe today in the aftermath of the Financial Crises. With the discredited austerity measures been imposed without mercy on many European economies, the “bail-out” and now “bail-in” programs with their ruthless conditions cutting into any hopes of a decent economic recovery coming anytime soon, one can not help thinking how the various assumptions about choice that we instinctively make effected the outcome of the “rescue” process imposed on the South of Europe.
Taking it one step further, able to move more money at the click of a mouse than some governments of the world have at their disposal, what if a rogue trader or a financial institution accidentally decided to rely on false perceptions and mistaken choice and as a result make a catastrophic decision that caused a country to default on its sovereign debt, with all the consequences for the fate of millions of people’s savings tied in as a result? Or maybe North Korea launching a missile by mistake or the Americans giving the go-ahead for a preemptive cruise missile strike to avoid just that too? Not the kind of outcome any sane person would want to live out.
It boggles the mind just how much rests on choice and the assumptions that come with it. That simple selection that goes on in our mind is the fulcrum on which history and our lives pivot. Let us hope that those who have the power to make such choices are able to exercise due discretion and that we are able to exercise suitable responsibility ourselves in our own lives too.