I’m a few days into a trip to Mexico with some friends. It’s midday and we’ve been sitting on the beach, catching up on stories. It’s been a few years since we’ve gotten together. The warmth of the sun and serenity of the beach make for a relaxing backdrop to detach ourselves from the usual bustle of daily life.
Amid the tranquility of the scene, my friend chirps in, “Hey, what do you think we leave the beach and explore other things to do?”
Modestly disinterested, I replied “It’s pretty nice here and I’m enjoying the moment. Why do something different?”
“I dunno, I feel like there’s much we could be doing.”
Another friend chimes in, “Yeah, don’t you think we could be missing something if we’re just sitting on the beach?”
Influenced in part by a desire to not move from my comfortable position on the beach, I pitched reasons for staying put and not exploring further. We debated the merits of enjoying an already wonderful moment, the risk of changing our plan and having a worse experience, and the discomfort of fomo (fear of missing out) if we don’t explore.
This debate recalled the idea of Maximizers and Satisficers within decision making. Brought to light more recently via books such as Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice,” the concept of Maximizers and Satisficers present a powerful idea that runs counter to how I, and many of those around me, typically make decisions among a set of options.
Maximizing and Satisficing
A few years ago, I was in Tokyo and wanted to enjoy a special night out with a high quality meal. Tokyo, which boasts the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world, is well regarded for it’s culinary exceptionalism. If I had a rare opportunity for a high quality meal, I certainly wanted to make the most of it.
What came next was a much larger project that I had anticipated. I made a list of 350 restaurants based on their ratings across several sources, and then painstakingly filtered and learned about each one before finally converging on a few restaurants, after which I’d call and see if reservations were available (and not only reservations, but reservations for the best seats, according to the reviews).
My search for a restaurant in Tokyo illustrates Maximizing behavior in action – which is when we seek “the very best” for something desired.
Satisficing behavior on the other hand, seeks to meet some criteria, with the search ending with the first option found meeting the criterion. For example, in my search for a restaurant in Tokyo, I could’ve filtered for desired rating, budget, and distance and book the first one available that met those criteria. Instead, I spent additional effort to compare a wider range of options against a larger set of criteria, to find the best option for me.
But isn’t Maximizing behavior great?
Surely, we all want the best for ourselves. We’d like to view ourselves as people of high standards and with distinguished tastes.
Satisficing sounds a lot like settling and not caring about high standards. Media tells us to never settle, that we deserve the best, and we should accept “the best, or nothing.” As exotic as it is, the Ebi Fillet-O, wasn’t going to cut it for my glorious high quality meal in Tokyo.1
In fact, maximizers are shown to have objectively better results that satisficers. High standards and deep searching yields higher quality results.
So we should be seeking the best options, and thus maximizing, right?
In this post, I present thoughts on why maximizing behavior is actually undesirable. While satisficing behavior, which can be uncomfortable and counter-intuitive, is a better choice in many situations.
The danger of Maximizing
While high standards and better results are great, psychologist Barry Schwartz has shown those who maximize are actually less happy and more depressed than those who satisfice. Despite better objective outcomes.
Why would better outcomes lead to less happiness?
Schwartz’s work highlights several psychological processes which reduces satisfaction with choices:
High opportunity cost
We experience an opportunity cost with any choice we make. It’s the cost we experience by passing up an alternative. For example, if I choose ice cream for dessert, my opportunity cost is the joy I could’ve experienced from the apple pie instead of the ice cream. If we open ourselves up to even more choices, for example apple pie, tiramisu, and cheesecake as well, our opportunity costs increase along with the increasing choices. The higher opportunity costs a choice has, the less satisfaction we experience with the choice we’ve made.
When we explore more options for a choice, we can end up second guessing our choice and experience post-decision regret, or buyer’s remorse. Since we’re aware of all the other wonderful choices we didn’t select, we’re able to imagine how the other choices could’ve actually been better than the choice we made. And as we increase the options available to us, the easier it is to imagine one of the options to have been a better option, leading us to higher likelihood of regret. While the ice cream I chose could be perfectly fine, it may not be exactly as I imagined. Once I start to second guess my choice, all of a sudden that deliciously delicate tiramisu seems like it would’ve been a better choice.
As we experience more options and higher quality options, our expectations also rise for what is acceptable. When we raise our expectations, even if something is objectively better, because our expectations have risen, we do not experience additional satisfaction from the better option. If I choose an ice cream flavor among dozens of flavors, I expect the one I select to be of the exceptional quality. I have chosen “the best” among a large selection. On the other hand, if I only have one or two choices, my expectations on how spectacular my choice is will be more modest. The increase in my expectation with more choices actually leads me to enjoy my selection less, even if it is truly better.
Does this mean we should just settle for ok?
I’ll admit that I don’t like the idea of settling for “acceptable,” while I could or should be striving for great. What I think is important is not to view satisficing as “settling,” but rather to be intentional about what matters and doesn’t. Satisficing is about choosing what matters most, understanding what level of quality to accept (keeping in mind there is likely a point of diminishing returns with an ever higher bar), and enjoying what we’ve chosen.
Choose what matters
We can choose to be maximizers in certain cases, and satificers in other cases. Maximizing leads us to higher quality outcomes, but at a cost of our well-being and the cost of searching for that outcome. For areas of high importance to us, this could be a perfectly fine strategy. We might even enjoy the process of maximising. However, I’d suggest that many of us maximize more than beneficial. There’s certainly no need for me to browse Doordash for 40 min to select the perfect lunch delivery to maximize enjoyability of the 20% off coupon code I got. I would never do that. Nope.
Understand your quality bar
There seems to be an inherent drive for us to often seek “the best” for something. Whether that’s the best sushi restaurant, the best school or job, or even the best partner. There are a few problems with seeking “the best.” First, it’s a zero sum relative ranking. This can drive extraordinary demand (and cost) for the top option, since by definition there is only one top option. Second, the qualities that make something “the best” can be disparate from what one needs to be happy with a choice. For example, “the best” ice cream may be dipped in gold and made with Madagascar vanilla beans. But if I find eating gold absurd and don’t know why Madagascar vanilla beans are the best, chasing the best in this case is overkill.
Be happy with what you do have
Higher expectations and the possibility of regret (ie. FOMO) detract from enjoying what we choose. As long as we’re comfortable that our choice has met what we need, there is no reason to not enjoy our choice. Too often, we suffer from a “grass is greener” mindset. Whether the grass is indeed greener or not, sometimes gratitude and a little ignorance is better for us overall.
Back on the beach in Mexico, my friends don’t buy my pitch to just enjoy the moment and forget exploring other activities. They decide to go for a walk around town, while I opt to stay back on the beach. A couple of hours later, my friends returned and regaled stories of the sights seen and tastes experienced. They had a great afternoon exploring.
Curiosity, and a twinge of regret crept in.
But I recalled I had an enjoyable afternoon as well. While not as glamorous and the local sights of Tulum, Mexico, I enjoyed some uninterrupted time to just read.
The best choice is personal and subjective. There’s no clear answer on whether I was happier or my friends were happier. What I do think is important is that we pay more attention to our choices and move to be more intentional on whether we maximize or satisfice.
I did enjoy the restaurant and meal that I ultimately selected (Restaurant Ryuzu). But as highlighted in this post, I couldn’t help but have stratospheric expectations mixed with a fleeting thoughts about all the other options I could’ve selected instead.