The Myth of Choice


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Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits

Kent Greenfield

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Freedom of choice is at the core of the American story. But what if choice is fake?

Americans are fixated on the idea of choice. Our political theory is based on the consent of the governed. Our legal system is built upon the argument that people freely make choices and bear responsibility for them. And what slogan could better express the heart of our consumer culture than "Have it your way"?

In this provocative book, Kent Greenfield poses unsettling questions about the choices we make. What if they are more constrained and limited than we like to think? If we have less free will than we realize, what are the implications for us as individuals and for our society? To uncover the answers, Greenfield taps into scholarship on topics ranging from brain science to economics, political theory to sociology. His discoveries—told through an entertaining array of news events, personal anecdotes, crime stories, and legal decisions—confirm that many factors, conscious and unconscious, limit our free will. Worse, by failing to perceive them we leave ourselves open to manipulation. But Greenfield offers useful suggestions to help us become better decision makers as individuals, and to ensure that in our laws and public policy we acknowledge the complexity of choice.

Kent Greenfield is professor of law and law fund research scholar, Boston College. He is author of The Failure of Corporate Law: Fundamental Flaws and Progressive Possibilities and numerous scholarly law articles. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

“A fascinating account of the constraints on personal choice, and the consequences of those constraints for sexuality, religion, politics, law, and everyday life.”—Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime


"An excellent and insightful book that is remarkably fun to read. Greenfield mixes wit, personal anecdote, and hard data from a range of disciplines to reveal how our fixation on personal responsibility often allows people in power to avoid responsibility. If you're looking for a counterpoint to the Tea Party, this is it."—Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America

"Greenfield's approach is entirely original and a major scholarly accomplishment. His combination of approaches, his lack of dogmatism, his attention to detail, his use of myriad, easily understood examples, and his derivation of powerful lessons makes the book a unique achievement."—Joseph William Singer, author of Entitlement: The Paradoxes of Property and The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership

“Here is the voice of a new and exciting public intellectual, bubbling with policy recommendations, fascinating paradoxes, and homespun personal advice about our most important life choices.   A must read for thought leaders, regulators, and anyone who cares about novel and interesting ideas.” —Frank Partnoy, author of The Match King

"Kent Greenfield has a refreshing way of looking at whole fields—law, politics, economics, biology—and seeing the principles we use to organize them. He is also an engaging writer whose light touch belies the weight of the ideas he juggles so effortlessly. You should read this book."—John Garvey, President, The Catholic University of America

“Kent Greenfield argues in lively, accessible style that much of what we experience as choice is better understood as the product of circumstance. His challenge is meant to unsettle our beliefs, our judgments, and our values—and it does.” —Noah Feldman, author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

"Kent Greenfield has a knack for conveying difficult ideas in accessible terms. The Myth of Choice, sure to be a hit, focuses on one of the great challenges in law and policy—how to reconcile our idealistic belief in choice with everyday realities."—Heather K. Gerken, author of The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It

"Kent Greenfield has written a brilliant, profoundly thought-provoking book about the many constraints on decision-making, from the most personal choices to those of the highest government officials."—Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

"Drawing on thought-provoking examples from nearly every aspect of modern life, Greenfield shows that everything from the organization of the brain to the nature of markets, authority, and culture itself shapes decisions we think we are making freely. His book shows that we can make better choices for ourselves, and design better public policy by understanding the promise, and the limits, of choice."—Pamela S. Karlan, author of Keeping Faith With the Constitution

"Through entertaining and illuminating references that run the gamut from The Sopranos and fast food jingles to scientific studies and Supreme Court cases, Greenfield explodes cherished beliefs about free will that inform our “law and politics and life." Read it as a valuable guide to improved public policies and personal life decisions—or just for the sheer fun of it."—Dawn Johnsen, Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law, Indiana University Maurer School of Law


"Greenfield provides gripping examples of how the rhetoric of choice masks the legal and social limitations of our ability to make informed decisions."—Sheena S. Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing

"Informative, lively and provocative, The Myth of Choice has important implications for the decisions we make in our everyday lives."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Oregonian

"A fascinating, engaging dissection of the meanings and implications of choice in a wide variety of cultural arenas."—Matthew Tiffany, Shelf Awareness

"Readers interested in the means and methods of how we make decisions—and how we perceive ourselves as immune to attempts at influencing those decisions--will find Greenfield's book an embarrassment of riches."—Matthew Tiffany, Shelf Awareness

The Myth of Choice isn’t just tightly argued, it’s an enjoyable read as well…Comprehensive and readable enough to satisfy both newcomers and veterans of this debate.”—Boston Globe

“Greenfield unpacks the complexities masked by the free-market bromides, which pass for economic debate in the United States, deftly dispatching ossified conventional wisdom that completely ignores our growing knowledge of how people actually make decisions. “—Boston Globe

"Informative, lively and provocative, The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits has important implications for the decisions we make in our everyday lives."—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Sunday Oregonian

"[F]ascinating . . . it is undeniably important that we become better aware of the forces that subtly and profoundly limit our choices."—Michael Kroner, The Plain Dealer

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2012 for Political Theory within the Social and Behavioral Sciences category.
ISBN: 9780300169867
Publication Date: November 13, 2012
256 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
21 b/w illus.

Sales Restrictions: For sale in North America only
Corporations Are People Too

(And They Should Act Like It)

Kent Greenfield

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