Maximizing vs. Satisficing? How happy are you with your decisions?

Choose well, your choice is brief, yet endless.“ ~ Goethe

  • Do you channel surf when you watch TV, even while attempting to watch one program?
  • When you are in the car listening to the radio, do you often check other stations to see if something better is playing even if you’re relatively satisfied with what you’re listening to?
  • No matter how satisfied you are with your job, do you think it is only right for you to be on the lookout for better opportunities?
  • Do you find that writing – even just a letter to a friend – is difficult because it’s so hard to word things just right?
  • Do you find renting videos, or shopping for clothes or gifts difficult because you’re always struggling to pick the best one?
  • Whenever you’re faced with a choice, do you try to imagine what all the other possibilities are, even ones that aren’t possible at the moment?

Well, if you said yes to most of the above questions you’re probably a “maximizer” – that is, you have goal orientation that is driven by the question “Is this the best?”. But if you think more in terms of “Is this alternative acceptable?” you are more of a “satisficer”.

Of course, like for any other psychological categorization, these represent general tendencies and could show variation depending on factors such as the type of decision (eg., health – related vs. grocery shopping) and the time available to make a decision.

Maximizing is the better strategy especially for important decisions – maximizers plan more carefully in solving problems, and their high standards may drive them to greater achievement.  However, maximization can come at a significant cost to well-being. If you are a maximizer you probably experience some negative post-decision consequences of being a maximizer.

Research shows that maximization is negatively related to happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and positively associated depression, perfectionism, and regret. This means picking the best option does not come with being happy or satified with the decision.

This is a red flag especially when the number of options increase. Most of us enjoy flexibility and having options – we think the more the better, right? Well, research shows: rather not! According to Dr. Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, as more options are added three problems arise:

  1. It becomes difficult to gather adequate information for all available options.
  2. As options expand, people’s standards for what is an acceptable outcome rise.
  3. People may come to believe that any unacceptable result is their fault, because with so many options, they should be able to find a satisfactory one.

But these problems do not trouble everyone equally. Maximizers tend to “suffer” more compared to satisficiers. Think about a purchasing decision.  If there were only two software programs it would be relatively easier to pick one, but let’s say the IT manager is trying to decide among five products. Let’s look at two scenarios:

A “satisficer” manager would be content with using “good enough” information as basis for making a choice. Based on this information, her goal would be to pick the one which is “acceptable” for the needs of the company. Post-decision she wouldn’t keep on questioning her decision thinking “Have I collected all information?” or “Is this really the best software for the company, or could one of the others have been better?”

A maximizer, on the other hand would try to make sure he has a lot of information about each product – which would probably take longer to gather and evaluate. His decision making will be guided by “Which one is the best?”. After he makes his decision he is likely to seek standards or ratings to compare his decision against.

The irony is that despite doing their best in weighing the options, maximizers can’t let go once they’ve made a choice. In a way you could also say that maximizers spend too much time in the deliberative mindset. Rather, they show a susceptibility to regret as indicated by the following statements:

  • Whenever I make a choice, I’m curious about what would have happened if I had chosen differently.
  • Whenever I make a choice, I try to get information about how the other alternatives turned out.
  • If I make a choice and it turns out well, I still feel like something of a failure if I find out that another choice would have turned out better.

Maximizers also have higher expectations from their chosen option and they expect a higher rate of return given the huge investment they’ve made in weighing the alternatives before deciding. This tendency sets them up for frequent disappointment.

So, if you

  • have a general tendency to take a lot of time in weighing different options;
  • find it difficult to enjoy the choices you’ve made because you can’t stop thinking what would have happened if you had picked the other alternative;
  • tend to compare yourself frequently with others – especially those who are better off;
  • experience regret often;can’t make sense why the boost of happiness you got from making that “best” decision wares off so easily (despite all that effort you’ve put in!)

then, you need to make some changes in the way you make decisions. That is, if you would like to still make good decisions, but be more satisfied and happy with them and experience less regret.

Here’s a few things that will help you to make the shift:

  • Become aware how much time and energy you’re putting into making different decisions
  • Each time you’re faced with a decision (and that includes ordering food in a restaurant!) allocate a certain amount of time for decision making and stick with that.
  • Question your goal to pick “the best option” when faced with decisions – ask yourself: Is it really that important and necessary, or is it enough to pick “a good enough /acceptable” option?
  • Get others to question you when you are striving to pick the best option.
  • As you shift towards making “satisficing” decisions, make a quick post-decision analysis. How long did it take? How good do you feel about the decision? And how satisfying were the results? The aim here is to see you can still make good decisions by being a “satisficer”.

Again, like any other habit it will take time to change this one but it is likely to have positive outcomes.  That’s also why I suggest practicing it even with minor decisions such as ordering food or renting a movie. And you’ll still have the flexibility to take all the time you need when you are faced with important decisions.  Happy deciding!


Schwartz, B. (2000). Self determination: The tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist, 55, 79 – 88.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1178-1197.

This entry was posted in change, decision-making, deliberative mind-set, expectations, happiness, Letting go, maximizer, mindsets, satisficer, self-awareness. Bookmark the permalink.

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