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We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.
—Seneca the Younger
It’s a Friday night and you want to get tacos with a friend but aren’t sure where to go.
How would you choose?
Would you be fine with whatever’s closest? Would you pore over reviews in search of the best joint in town? Or would your approach fall somewhere in the middle, like finding a spot that’s close enough with good enough ratings?
Believe it or not, your answer can reveal a lot about how you make decisions in general and even predict how likely you are to generally experience happiness and satisfaction in your life.
In short, if you’d make a quick and decisive decision on where to eat based on simple criteria, like no more than five miles away with a four-star average on OpenTable, you’d be engaging in what psychologists refer to as satisficing.
And chances are you’d end up enjoying your food and feeling contented with your selection.
If, however, you’d analyze the possibilities from many angles in hopes of finding the “best” one, you’d be pursuing the strategy of maximizing.
And chances are you’d end up dissatisfied with the meal and irked you didn’t spend more time investigating the alternatives.
This phenomenon holds true for all decisions you make: The more you satisfice (go for good enough), the more likely you are to be happy with what you get—and with life in general—and the more you maximize (seek and accept only the best), the more likely you are to be disappointed with the outcomes.
Here’s a silly example you can probably relate to: When my wife and I would sit down to watch TV, I’d suck her into a tedious process of weighing all our options to find the “best” choice. We don’t watch much TV so we should try to make the most of the time, right?
I’d check a site or two online to see what’s new and popular, skim reviews, canvass my wife, and hem and haw. This rarely made for a pleasant wind down. Either I’d eventually lose interest in watching TV altogether (and get “the look” from my wife) or end up dissatisfied with our pick and wondering if another would’ve been better.
I’ve since changed my tack and it has made all the difference. Whereas previously I was a TV maximizer who was impossible to please, I’m now a satisficer who’s rarely let down.
Now, I’m fine with watching the first show that checks two basic boxes: it’s a genre we both usually like and it looks interesting. And if it turns out to be good, great. If it doesn’t, oh well, we’ll try again next time. Either way, we’re contented with the experience, which is more about relaxing together than riveting ourselves to a screen anyway.
That’s just one of the many types of situations we face in life where settling for less-than-perfect is superior to striving for the best. This is still true even when the stakes are higher. Here’s how psychologist Barry Schwartz explained the problem of maximizing in his excellent 2009 book The Paradox of Choice:
Maximizers need to be assured that every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. Yet how can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible? The only way to know is to check out all the alternatives. A maximizer can’t be certain that she has found the best sweater unless she’s looked at all the sweaters. She can’t know that she is getting the best price unless she’s checked out all the prices. As a decision strategy, maximizing creates a daunting task, which becomes all the more daunting as the number of options increases.
. . .
If you’re a satisficer, the number of available options need not have a significant impact on your decision making. When you examine an object and it’s good enough to meet your standards, you look no further; thus, the countless other available choices become irrelevant. But if you’re a maximizer, every option has the potential to snare you into endless tangles of anxiety, regret, and second-guessing.
. . .
Whereas maximizers might do better objectively than satisficers, they tend to do worse subjectively. Imagine a maximizer who succeeds in buying a sweater after an extensive search—a better sweater than any but the luckiest satisficer would end up with. How does he feel about the sweater? Is he frustrated at how much time and work went into buying it? Is he imagining unexamined alternatives that might be better? Is he asking himself whether friends of his might have gotten better deals? Is he scrutinizing every person he passes in the street to see if they’re wearing sweaters that look finer? The maximizer might be plagued by any or all of these doubts and concerns while the satisficer marches on in warmth and comfort.
. . .
Getting the best objective result may not be worth much if we feel disappointed with it anyway.
In other words, while maximizing can produce an objectively better result than satisficing—a softer pillow, a more delicious mustard, a sharper picture—the cost in time, attention, and effort is often much higher and the fruit of your labor often tastes inadequate.
This experience has been demonstrated in a number of scientific studies, including a series of experiments conducted by scientists at Columbia University.
In one experiment, researchers set up a display of twenty-four exotic, high-quality jams in a gourmet food store. Customers could come by and taste samples and receive a one-dollar discount if they bought a jar.
In one condition of the study, shoppers could sample six of the twenty-four flavors available for purchase, and in another, they could sample all twenty-four varieties.
As you might expect, the larger array of samples attracted more tasters, although in both cases people tested out about the same number of jams on average. Purchasing patterns were much different, however—thirty percent of the people offered just six samples purchased a jar while only three percent of those exposed to the larger arrangement bought something.
In a similar experiment conducted by the same team of scientists, college students were asked to choose a piece of Godiva chocolate based on its official name and then rate how much they enjoyed it on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely).
In one condition of this study, students were given six flavors to choose from, and in another, they were shown thirty flavors. The group shown fewer options was significantly more satisfied with their choices than those shown more and four times more likely to choose chocolate as compensation for participating in the study than cash.
The researchers discussed several explanations for the results of these (and other) experiments. A large number of choices may discourage a decision because it requires more deliberation (effort). It’s easier to just not buy the product. The multitude of options may also make what’s chosen less enjoyable because it highlights the possibility that something else could’ve been better.
Schwartz expounds on these and other theories in The Paradox of Choice and concludes the following:
The “success” of modernity turns out to be bittersweet, and everywhere we look it appears that a significant contributing factor is the overabundance of choice. Having too many choices produces psychological distress, especially when combined with regret, concern about status, adaptation, social comparison, and perhaps most important, the desire to have the best of everything—to maximize.
He also proposes a number of practical strategies to help us conquer the embarrassment of riches and “tyranny of small decisions” that mark our everyday lives, including passing up unimportant opportunities to consider and contemplate, satisficing more and maximizing less (and yes, you can still do this while maintaining high standards), selectively ignoring opportunity costs, and more.
The crux of the matter is this:
Good enough is almost always good enough. A good enough cup of coffee, a good enough bagel, a good enough pair of jeans.
Except when it’s not. Some decisions are important enough to warrant deliberation, like whether to go to college or trade school, who to marry, and where to work. Sometimes the opportunity cost in time, effort, money, and stress of maximizing can be well worth it in the long run.
Knowing when to satisfice or maximize, then, is a vital skill to develop if we want to not only experience better objective outcomes in our lives but also experience more subjective satisfaction with them. Because while maximizing almost certainly produces better objective results, as Schwartz said, they may not be worth much if we feel disappointed with them anyway.
Whenever we’re faced with a decision, then, we have to honestly ask ourselves this question: What really matters most here—the objective results or subjective experience?
If how we’re going to feel about the decision afterward is clearly more important than the objective factors, satisficing is the surest path to satisfaction.
Take planning a vacation, for instance. With all the wondrous places to visit in the world and all the information and media available for review, this can be a maximizer’s nemesis. And as someone who has done a fair amount of traveling and spent way too much time on Tripadvisor along the way, I can attest to this.
You can spend countless hours trying to solve for the “best” possible trip and find it no more enjoyable (and often less so for reasons we’ve already discussed) than booking the first one that can deliver on a few promises like gorgeous scenery, good R&R, and fantastic food and fun.
This example highlights another benefit of viewing decisions in this way: it forces us to clarify our true motives and desires.
It’s easy to say we’ll only accept the “best,” but what does that mean exactly? Best for whom? Best in what way? The fundamental problem with “best” is it’s an abstract, vaporous standard that’s practically impossible to meet. “Very good,” however, can have a form and features. Very good can be measured. And very good can feel great.
This is true even when the objective results of a decision seem to matter more than how we’re going to feel about them. We can’t forget that our subjective perception of events will always affect the overall quality of the experiences.
In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz explains it like this:
But while this subjective satisfaction scale may work for trivial decisions, when it comes to important life issues—education, for instance—isn’t objective quality all that matters? No, I don’t think so. I have interacted with college students for many years as a professor, and in my experience, students who think they’re in the right place get far more out of a particular school than students who don’t. Conviction that they have found a good fit makes students more confident, more open to experience, and more attentive to opportunities. So while objective experience clearly matters, subjective experience has a great deal to do with the quality of that objective experience.
Which is not to say that students who are satisfied with bad colleges will get a good education, or that patients who are satisfied with incompetent doctors will not suffer in the end. But remember, I’m not saying that satisficers do not have standards. Satisficers may have very high standards. It’s just that they allow themselves to be satisfied once experiences meet those standards.
So, instead of suffering the considerable costs of always demanding the “best” that life has to offer, large and small, we should realize that true maximization involves just enough exploration of the possibilities to lead to very good decisions.
Why go beyond this point of diminishing returns? Why take pains to achieve marginal objective improvements that are unlikely to satisfy the maximizer on our shoulders? Why chase chimeras when we can catch their cousins?