Last night, at dinner with some friends, we talked about whether we were satisficers or maximizers.
Satisficers (yes, satisfice is a word, I checked) are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.
Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice.
Most people are a mix of both approaches. For example, one friend was a satisficer about renting an apartment, but a maximizer about buying an apartment. As a consequence, he and his wife are renting an apartment now, because they had to move, and they’re still searching for the perfect apartment to buy.
In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.
My mother is a good example of what I’d call a “happy limited maximizer.” In certain distinct categories, she’s a maximizer, and she loves the very process of investigating every possibility. My sister is getting married next year, and I know that my mother would love nothing more than to see her try on practically every possible wedding dress, just for the fun of it. But too often maximizers find the research process exhausting—yet can’t let themselves “settle” for anything but the best.
The difference between the two approaches may be one reason some people find a big city like New York overwhelming. If you’re a maximizer, and you live in New York, you could spend months surveying your options for bedroom furniture or even wooden hangers. In a smaller city, like Kansas City, even the most zealous maximizer can size up the available options pretty quickly.
In almost every category, I’m a satisficer, and until I read the Schwartz book, I felt guilty about the fact that often I make decisions without doing more research. For example, when I wanted to start a weight-training program, I didn’t study the options at all. A friend of mine told me she loved her trainer and regime, and I just got the number and called. In law school, one friend interviewed with something like fifty law firms before she decided where she wanted to go as a summer associate; I think I interviewed with six. And we ended up at the same firm (which I found both reassuring and vindicating).
It’s one of Life’s True Rules: let someone else do the research.