A message that comes through strongly in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice is the idea that we should try to become satisficers in more areas of our lives. (To understand the difference between “maximisers” and “satisficers”, see my summary at the link above.)
I’ve questioned that assumption in a separate post, Why should you want to be a satisficer? This post focuses on two other questions:
- Is it even possible for maximisers to become satisficers?
- If so, how exactly do you go about this?
Is it even possible to become a satisficer?
Schwartz believes so
Schwartz notes that maximising and satisficing tend to be “domain-specific”. For example, he personally scored low on the maximisation scale but, like everyone else, has some areas in which he tends to maximise, such as ordering in restaurants.
From this, Schwartz infers that most of us have the capacity to become satisficers. He recommends looking at times in your life when you’ve happily settled for “good enough” and think about how you chose in those areas. Then try to apply that strategy more broadly.
I wasn’t persuaded by Schwartz’s reasoning. While I do believe it’s possible to dial back some maximising tendencies, I don’t think it’s as simple as transferring a decision-making strategy from one domain to another. What would have been more convincing is if Schwartz had talked about how he managed to become less of a maximiser when ordering food, and shared how he’d done that.
Maximising and satisficing are probably domain-specific because nobody cares about every aspect of life. It’s easy to be a satisficer when you don’t care about something. For example, I don’t really care about fashion so I satisfice when deciding what to wear. But that doesn’t help me in domains I care very much about — I can’t readily transfer my strategy of “not caring”.
It’s also worth noting that some research has shown a correlation between personality traits and maximising/satisficing. One study showed conscientiousness was the strongest predictor of maximising while another study showed neuroticism was. Since personality traits tend to be relatively stable, it could be reasonable to infer that maximising/satisficing are also relatively stable.
Other research suggests between 50% to 80% of our happiness may be genetically predetermined. This significant genetic component suggests that there’s only so much we can do to move our own ‘set point’ for happiness. It follows that even if maximising causes unhappiness (which is by no means clear):
- our tendency to maximise may also have a significant genetic component and therefore be difficult to change; and
- even if it can be changed, the effect on our happiness is limited.
To be clear, this is conjecture based on a few correlations. There’s no definitive proof either way, and I’m certainly not saying it’s impossible for people to change. I’m just saying there are likely limits to how much we can change, and that maximising and satisficing being domain-specific doesn’t really prove anything.
How to become a satisficer?
Though it’s by no means clear that a maximiser can become a satisficer, you may figure there’s no harm in trying anyway.
In this section, I set out a summary of Schwartz’s suggestions from The Paradox of Choice, and add a few thoughts of my own. Schwartz gives 11 recommendations, but some of them are quite repetitive and not very actionable, so I’ve tried to streamline them.
The recommendations fall into 5 broad groups:
- Use rules and presumptions to cut down on decisions;
- Develop your own standards for “good enough”;
- Stop post-decision research; and
- Practise gratitude.
If you don’t know that too many options can be a problem, you can’t just ignore options and treat a 30-option array as if it were a 6-option one.
However, awareness goes beyond simply being aware that the problem exists — it’s also about gaining insight into what makes us happy. Knowing that we will adapt to our circumstances may make it easier to spend less time on choices that won’t matter in the long term. Knowing about how adaptation works may help us moderate our expectations and deliberately limit wonderful experiences, thereby mitigating the hedonic treadmill effect.
Another dimension of awareness is the realisation that most decisions are not that important. If you choose the wrong dish at a restaurant, you may get a bit of food envy, but you can choose differently next time. Even major life decisions, like picking a major or choosing between different job opportunities, do not impact our well-being as much we as often assume. Usually, there’ll be opportunities to course-correct if we later find out we’ve made a really bad decision.
A useful thing I’d once heard on 80,000 Hours is that all hard decisions are actually easy decisions. When alternatives look equally attractive, it feels hard to decide which one to go with. But that’s also what makes them easy! If the alternatives are roughly equally good, it doesn’t actually matter which one you end up choosing.
In a way, these suggestions are similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in that they attempt to leverage awareness of our thought patterns and behaviours to make better decisions.
2. Use rules and presumptions to cut down on decisions
Rules and presumptions are second-order decisions — decisions about when and how to make decisions.
The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.
Decision rules limit your set of options, saving time, cutting short rumination, and moderating expectations. For example: “Always wear a seatbelt” is a rule that means you won’t have decide whether to wear a seatbelt each time you get into a car. “Don’t visit more than 2 stores when clothes shopping” is a rule that limits the number of clothing choices you will even see when shopping.
Presumptions are less stringent than decision rules and can be rebutted. For example, Schwartz recommends sticking with what you always do or buy, unless you’re truly dissatisfied. You’ll still encounter plenty of new things through serendipity, anyway.
Making these second-order decisions may take some effort in the short-term but can eliminate a host of other decisions, particularly if combined with routines or habits. In the long run, this frees up valuable time and attention.
3. Develop your own standards for “good enough”
Rules and presumptions can reduce the number of decisions of you make, but won’t eliminate them altogether. For the decisions that remain, try to apply your own standards for “good enough” and rely less on comparisons among alternatives or on social comparisons.
This is easier said than done, and requires knowing yourself and what you care about. A tasty meal may be “good enough” even if it’s not as good as what you ordered last time, or what your dinner companion is having. A salary may be “good enough” if it lets you afford a decent place to live, nice clothes, an occasional night out, etc, even if it’s not as high as what you could be earning or what your peers earn.
4. Stop post-decision research
If you find yourself tempted to keep looking at product reviews and comparisons after you’ve made a decision, just stop. This suggestion is one of the easier ones to do because it’s often easier to control your actions than your thoughts.
A decision not to engage in post-decision research is really a second-order decision, but it’s such an important one that I’m putting it here. One study divided maximising behaviour into three components: alternative search, decision difficulty and high standards. Alternative search referred to the act of continually looking for other options even after making a decision. The key findings were that older people search for fewer alternatives, and this was linked to better emotional well-being. The other two factors (how difficult decisions are and how high one’s standards are) didn’t show a significant relationship with emotional well-being as people age. So cutting down on alternative search may be an important path to improved well-being.
5. Practise gratitude
The same experience can have both pleasant and disappointing aspects. Focusing on the positive aspects and avoiding upward counterfactuals can make us more grateful and thereby happier.
Gratitude may take a while. It doesn’t always come naturally to most of us and may feel awkward at first. Schwartz suggests keeping a notepad beside your bed and writing down 5 things each day that you’re grateful for, even if they’re small (e.g. sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window). Over time, however, it should get easier and feel more natural. [There’s some evidence to suggest that adaption also applies here, though. A study found that people who practised gratitude once a week experienced a bigger boost in well-being than those who practised it 3x a week.]
My own experience
My own experience suggests that changing from maximising to satisficing is somewhat possible — but only up to a point.
After I first read The Paradox of Choice in 2013, I made a conscious effort to satisfice more. My own anecdotal experience showed that it’s possible to act more like a satisficer and, in so doing, gain some of the benefits of satisficing. Over the years, I felt I had shaken off the worst of my maximising tendencies and achieved a more reasonable balance between maximising and satisficing (though I would probably still fall on the “maximising” end of Schwartz’s scale).
Then a recent move to a new country meant I had to confront a whole new set of decisions. Many of my maximising tendencies resurfaced. I couldn’t rely on presumptions like “buy what I normally buy” because most of my normal brands weren’t available in this new market. Though I tried my best to act like a satisficer — I’d force myself to make decisions and limited the time I spent comparing options — I still felt unhappy about it all and experienced more than a few bouts of post-decision regret.1Admittedly, moving to a new country is stressful in general. But my partner, who is a true satisficer, seemed to cope much better with the volume of decision-making required. The whole experience left me with strong doubts over the extent to which maximisers can truly change and become satisficers.
Circling back to the question we began with — can maximisers become satisficers? Unfortunately, we don’t really know for sure.
If you want to give it a shot anyway, start by understanding that more choice is not always better. Next, set some decision rules and presumptions to cut down on choices, and develop your own standards of “good enough” for the decisions that remain. One of those rules should be to stop second-guessing and researching options after you’ve already made a decision. Lastly, practise gratitude and focus on the positive aspects of your experiences.
With all that being said, if you find that you can’t help resorting to maximising thoughts and behaviour on occasion, don’t beat yourself up. Because we don’t actually know the extent to which it’s possible for maximisers to change anyway.
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Do you think it’s possible to become a satisficer? Have you tried any of the suggestions above? Share your views in the comments below!
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- 1Admittedly, moving to a new country is stressful in general. But my partner, who is a true satisficer, seemed to cope much better with the volume of decision-making required.