Would you rather make better decisions or be more satisfied with them? Research shows you can't have both.

Would you rather make better decisions or be more satisfied with them? Research shows you can't have both.

Maximizer: an individual who seeks out the most optimal (maximum utility) outcome when making a decision.1

Satisficer: an individual who is more concerned about making a decision that is ‘good enough’ and fulfills their desired criteria instead of making the best decision.1 (The term combines the words 'satisfy' and 'suffice' and was first coined back in the 1950s by American psychologist Herbert Simon.)

Have you ever been to the Cheesecake factory? If you have, you flipped through a menu that rivals a textbook to finally land on something you want. You order it, it tastes pretty good, but you wonder how the other 10 things you were considering tasted. Did I order the thing that I'd like most in this moment? Did I make the best choice?

This is the paradox of choice, popularized by American psychologist Barry Schwartz when he published his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, in 2004. It's a psychological and behavioral economic idea that more options does not always lead to increased satisfaction in the outcome or choice. And in different experiments, it's been proven to have a negative impact on satisfaction.

As Western societies have progressed, so too have the options available to those who live there. Does this mean that people are happier? Schwartz showed that consumer satisfaction has not increased as much as traditional economics theories might expect.2

The study that initially sparked Barry Schwartz's interest in the matter was conducted by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, both also important figures in behavioral science in 2001.4 To read about the study you can read more here and the paper here.

In essence, they set up a table of jam's in a grocery store. There was a limited choice and extensive choice table. The extensive choice table had 24 options and the limited had 6. If someone tastes a jam they get $1 discount coupon they can use to purchase any jam. More people tasted jam at the 24-option table, but they were less likely to buy a jam compared to the limited-choice table. Although, less people were likely to taste a jam at the limited choice table, once they did they were more likely to purchase one. The researchers concluded that while an abundance of options might initially seem attractive to consumers, having too many options might actually cause someone not to make any decision at all.

Now, where do maximizers and satisficers play into this?

Maximizers are people who spend more time deliberating over an option and it can be very time-consuming. Maximizer tendencies are also linked to post-decision regret and counterfactual thinking. What would've happened if I chose something else? Was this the best choice? 5 A series of studies showed that maximizers were more likely to be depressed, overly perfectionistic, and prone to regret or self-blame. 6

Unlike maximizers, satisficers don't need a lot of options or information. They also rely less on outside sources, meaning they’re less likely to scour online reviews or get as much information as possible when making decisions. They make decisions faster, weigh fewer choices, and go with their gut. It's the "good enough" approach. Satisficers tend to feel buyer's remorse less or not at all.
Of these two approaches, does one tend to end up with better results? "Better results" aren't typically objective when we're deciding individual preferences and making choices but there are a few areas that are slightly more objective like looking for a job and landing one that pays more (if that's the metric you're going for). I've only looked at a few studies on which group, maximizers or satisficers, make the best choices, but the general consensus is maximizers make better decisions but have less satisfaction afterward. However, there are some studies that show in not all cases maximizers may not actually benefit from their rigorous approach at coming to a decision. 7, 8

In addition to being more satisfied, Satisficers make decisions more quickly than maximizers but this speed doesn't always result in the ‘best’ outcome that gives them the maximum return. A 2006 study, for example, showed that recent university graduates with high maximizing tendencies found jobs that paid starting salaries that were 20% higher than those of their satisficing peers. 9 (That being said, maximizers reported being less satisfied with those jobs.)

I'm writing about all of this because I'm a maximizer and I wanted to know more about this. I've been struggling with trying to have the most optimal day and that getting in the way of my enjoyment in life. I wanted to learn more about it and understand what it is that's actually going on, to the extent that I've done this here. I make a lot of decisions in my life, we all do, and I'm always trying to prioritize my time and make the best decisions. There are many decisions in life that are irreversible and those have always given me a hard time when thinking about them. But in other ways, it's always been calming once I make those decisions because I can't go back and change them.

Recently, I stumbled upon research on decision reversibility. It found that although people believe they prefer reversible decisions, irreversible decisions yield the most satisfaction. From the abstract of Rebecca Shiner's paper, Maximizers, satisficers, and their satisfaction with and preferences for reversible versus irreversible decisions:"... two studies investigated whether these findings are moderated by individuals’ tendencies toward maximizing  versus satisficing . Study 1 found that satisficers were more satisfied following an irreversible decision about a poster choice, whereas maximizers were more satisfied following a reversible decision. When a different group of participants in Study 2 were asked whether they would prefer the reversible or irreversible versions of Study 1, satisficers disproportionately chose the irreversible version, and maximizers disproportionately chose the reversible version; however, some extreme maximizers preferred the irreversible version as a means of preventing needless worry or second guessing. The results demonstrate that individual differences are likely to moderate even robust patterns of decision-making and affective forecasting." 10

So, I am a maximizer and an economist. The most optimal option is engrained in me and it's exhausting. It's begun to show its face in more and more places as I get older (it's probably always been there I'm just more in tune to recognizing it now). I'm the worst texter ever because there is a best response, so I just avoid it. I hate going to the cheesecake factory because there are too many options. I don't like picking out furniture but I have a vision for every space. I don't like choosing photos to post because there is a best option and a best caption. I moved across the street from one of the prettiest beaches in the world. There are unlimited things to do: paddle board, surf, boat, eat out, sit on the beach, read on the beach, sit on the balcony and watch the sunset. There are unlimited options. This amount of options to have the most optimal day off actually gives me anxiety sometimes (massive first-world problems for sure). But the feeling is real and I get a kind of analysis paralysis because I'm trying to answer the question: What is the most optimal way to spend this day off? To top it off I put pressure on myself saying, 'you don't get many days off, how many days off will you get when it's still warm out?'. Or I'll remind myself that we'll only be here for a year so I need to make the most of it. All of these things add to the requirement for me to choose the most optimal day.

This entire blog post had been a lead in to this thought experiment:
If I could, would I rather make better decisions but be less satisfied? Would I rather be more satisfied with my decisions but make less optimal decisions? What matters most? If I want to LIVE life and think that's what life may in fact be about, I should want to be the most satisfied. However, if I care about what people describe as being the best, most optimal, version of myself or 'fulfilling my potential', wouldn't I want to make better decisions and be less satisfied? Are there things I can do to keep making 'better' decisions but also increase my satisfaction? Would gratitude journals help my satisfaction level but maintain my life as a maximizer?

Is this something I can even really change, if in my heart I'm a maximizer, is there really anything I can do to change that? I will say I've been working on trying to let go and be comfortable with my decisions even if they may not be the most optimal. Or paraphrasing George Patton - a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. (Obviously, we aren't guaranteed tomorrow as they always say... so beyond this blog post this quote is so incredibly obvious. It hides in plain sight.)

Things are improving but I don't know if I'm just making worse decisions or if I'm less stuck on the optimization or maybe I'm just appreciating life more. And what is optimization anyways? I have to care about the outcome if I care to optimize. Don't I just care about making the best decision I can with the information I have? I guess I don't just care about that. But then again, if I do care about that then I want to make sure I have as much information as possible before making a decision... there goes my maximizing tendencies again.

So in my attempt to feel better. I'm going to practice more gratitude and try to be more satisfied with my life. I think when I find myself stressing too much over a decision I'll reign it back. And if I'm ever too nonchalant about making one (doubt it), I'll try to be more intentional. I try to be so intentional about all the things I do. I try to have intent in everything as that leads to having skin in the game of my life, and feeling like I was a part of why I ended up where I did. It enables meaning and living every day for those things. But maybe I've taken it to the extreme and now I'm pre-disposed to overthinking a decision rather than going with the flow.

Who knows. I'll work on gratitude, comfort with decisions, and putting less pressure on them.

Are you a maximizer or a satisficer? If you could choose one, which would you pick? Why?

See you in two weeks.
'til our last breath,


Click here for more information on James’ book Smile Your Last Breath Away
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P.S. Just wanted to shout out Decision Lab, BBC, and Psychologists World for having wonderful articles on this topic. They assimilated references and thoughts on this that helped me frame this blog.
  1. Bernstein, E. (2014, October 6). How You Make Decisions Says a Lot About How Happy You Are. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-you-make-decisions-says-a-lot-about-how-happy-you-are-1412614997
  2. Barry Schwartz: Are we happier when we have more options? (2013, November 15). National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2013/11/15/245034685/are-we-happier-when-we-have-more-options)
  3. Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2001). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology79(6), 995-1006. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511618031.017
  4. Yang, Mu-Li, Chiou, W.B. (2010). Looking online for the best romantic partner reduces decision quality: The moderating role of choice-making strategies. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 13(2)
  5. Shiner, R. L. (2015). Maximizers, satisficers, and their satisfaction with and preferences for reversible versus irreversible decisions. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(8), 896–903. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615595271

Would you rather make better decisions or be more satisfied with them? Research shows you can't have both.

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