In January of 2015, I joined a startup that my friend co-founded called Book in a Box. After giving one of the worst interviews of my life — not surprisingly also one of the only of my life — I was hired on to build out book marketing services and run marketing for the authors that we worked with.
My role was twofold: I would be both building out core services that we would offer to authors, and running those services (in their fledgling state) for our authors.
This was a dream role for me. I got to play in my own sandbox, solving problems quickly, systemizing them, and moving on to the next thing.
But, I got bored. Once I figured out how a problem “could” be solved, I’d ship it to 80% completion and then move on to the next one. This is a good trait in situations where you need to solve a problem quickly, but not precisely. However, there also comes a time where a problem needs to be fully worked out and solved.
For example, I’d designed a book launch process for our authors that was pretty solid, but had holes in the process here and there. It was “good enough” for me — but for our authors, it needed to be perfect.
My brain resisted doing that extra work to perfect the process.
My experiences at Book in a Box led me to ask myself this question:
How do we know when we should put in the effort to make the best choice, product, or decision, versus picking something that is simply “good enough?”
The answer is the mental model of maximizing vs. satisficing.
Maximizing is based on rational choice theory, which is an economic principle that states that you and I always make decisions that lead us to the most benefit, satisfaction, or utility. We make choices that are in our highest self-interest.
If you took economics in high school or college, most of your course material was built off of the assumptions that rational choice theory lays out.
But is it missing the psychological elements of being human? Many (including me) would say yes. You don’t need to look too far for examples of humans violating rational choice theory.
Another theory for how humans make decisions, the ideas behind satisficing stem from the core concept of bounded rationality.
In plain English, bounded rationality states that when you and I make decisions, that the information we have, our own mental limitations, and the amount of time we have to make our decisions affect how rational those decisions are.
For example, if I give you 10 seconds to choose the best dress shirt for you from a pile of 20, you’ll most likely pick the first one you grab. If I give you an hour, you’ll have more than enough time to try them all on and pick the one that fits your body and style the best.
We Have Too Many Options for Unimportant Things
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz notes that as our options for every aspect of our lives have increased, so has the cognitive load of making decisions in everyday life.
It wasn’t hard to choose a shampoo 100 years ago — there were probably 5 brands. Now, you have an aisle of 100+ options to choose from. If you’re a maximizer at heart (like me), this abundance of choice will prompt you to spend a great deal of time evaluating the best shampoo for you.
Problems Associated With Too Much Choice
In general, more choice means we make better objective decisions, but feel less satisfied with the decisions themselves. Here’s an example from a study:
Participants were more likely to purchase exotic jams or gourmet chocolates when they had 6 options from which to choose than when they had 24 or 30, respectively. And perhaps more importantly, those with fewer options expressed greater satisfaction with the choices they made. Similarly, university students were more likely to write an extracredit essay, and wrote better essays, when they had 6 topics to choose from than when they had 30. – Source
Here are more problems that too much choice can bring:
- Time spent gathering enough information about every single choice
- As options expand, our standards for an acceptable outcome rises (more choice = should be able to maximize more = standards raise)
- As options expand, any mistake is believed to be our fault, since the abundance of choice should mean we make a better choice.
These are only problems if you are a maximizer.
If you are a maximizer, all of these problems affect you because you must seek out the optimal choice and take it personally when you fail.
If you are a satisficer, all you need to do is find a choice that crosses the threshold of acceptability…then you just choose it, and move on.
Why, When, and How to Satisfice
At this point, you might be wondering why satisficing is a better path than maximizing. The answer is: it’s not, but for most mundane decisions in life, satisficing is the way to go. This is because if you take into account all of the costs of making a decision (time, stress, importance, etc.), most decisions simply aren’t that important.
Who cares what shampoo you get, really? Is your hair clean at the end of the day? If so, you chose the right shampoo.
To satisfice means to not go into “obsession research mode” for every single decision you make. We’re mortal human beings — we only have so much cognitive capacity.
Don’t waste it maximizing unimportant decisions.
The next time you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself how important the result is to your life overall. If it’s not very important (what to wear tomorrow), then choose the first option that crosses the threshold of “good enough.” Then move on with your life.
The Maximizing / Satisficing Spectrum
No one is a pure maximizer or satisficer in all domains. We all have areas where we tend to maximize and areas where we are content with ‘good enough.’
If you tend to be a satisficer, you probably only care about the result of the decision you make.
Did the shampoo clean my hair? Yes? OK, I’m satisfied with my choice.
If you tend to be a maximizer, the results of your choice may also bleed into how you perceive yourself.
Did I choose the best shampoo? Well, I got close, but there were a few other features that I didn’t consider and I also didn’t think about the types of chemicals in shampoo and how they affect my hair in the long run, so I probably could have made a better choice. God, I always do this! If I could just put in a bit more effort into my decisions, I’d be more of a success in life. It’s the same thing at work…
Does that monologue sound familiar to you? I know it does for me — I’m very clearly on the maximizing side of the spectrum.
More Thoughts on Maximizing
Maximizers are looking for the best outcome, satisficers are looking for an outcome that is good enough. While maximizers may actually attain better objective outcomes, the psychological costs that come with it may still make maximizing a bad strategy to adopt.
At the same time, your ability to maximize outcomes is domain dependent. If you’re good at choosing the best marketing CRM because you work in the industry, it doesn’t follow that you’ll be good at choosing the best types of clothing to wear among the plethora of options.
Maximizers also experience more regret than satisficers when they do not fully exhaust all possible options.
The finality of a decision also helps how we feel about our choice. If our choice is reversible, then we feel less satisfied with it. Once we choose, psychological processes such as dissonance reduction, rationalization, etc. come into play to solidify our choice and further reject the choices we passed on.
Overall, maximizers achieve better outcomes than satisficers. For example, a study found that recent college graduates with high maximizing tendencies accepted jobs that paid 20% higher starting salaries than their satisficing peers. Despite higher salaries, however, these maximizing students were less satisfied with the jobs they accepted. Why? Once maximizers have made a choice (e.g., a job offer), they are likely to second guess themselves, and wonder whether they could have made a better choice. They are more prone to make social comparisons in order to gauge the optimality of their decisions.