Dining out with me is an experience. Because when I go to a restaurant, I go with a game plan: to enjoy the most delicious meal it offers, hopefully at the lowest price. Once presented with a menu, I cannot engage in conversation until I make my choice, because I’m too distracted by the options in front of me. Some people are daunted by five- or six-page menus; I view them as a challenge. If I know ahead of time where I’ll be dining that evening, I look up the menu online for a head start and then ruminate on it all day. I ask servers for their opinions. I search for coupons. I calculate in my head whether the $15 chicken dish is really a better deal than the $20 seafood one, taking into account the fact that I make chicken at home all the time but I can’t easily re-create almond-encrusted halibut in my own kitchen.
I ask and listen to what others are ordering so I can weigh my choice against theirs. On more than one occasion, I’ve tracked down a server to change my order. And if my meal doesn’t live up to the high, high standards I’ve set for it, I think of it not just as a misstep by the chef, but as a personal failure: I didn’t order correctly. I should’ve gotten the halibut. I can think of one person I might compare my restaurant behavior to: Sally from When Harry Met Sally. She tailored every order; she added things, held things, and got things on the side. Like I am, Sally was a restaurant maximizer.
Maximizers and Satisficers
In the 1950s, a psychologist named Herbert Simon started taking a closer look at the way people make choices. The prevailing theory, espoused in economic models, was that people are rational decision makers. Like diners at a buffet, they examine all options before them, assess the costs and benefits of those options, and make a rational selection that maximizes value. Simon, however, thought this theory was flawed; it didn’t take into account the fact that—sorry to say, folks—human rationality is limited. It’s not possible to know everything about every option or to evaluate every possible outcome.
Simon theorized that not everyone is necessarily looking for maximum value. He believed that when people make decisions, they act as either a maximizer or a satisficer. A maximizer seeks and accepts only the best possible outcome. She gathers as much information as she can about as many options as possible, paying the price of time and energy. Once she makes a decision, she’ll compare her outcome with the choices people around her make. A maximizer always wonders, “Is there something better out there?”
A satisficer, on the other hand, is satisfied when something suffices. She’s not looking for the best outcome as much as she’s seeking a good-enough outcome. She’ll choose the first option that meets her standards. Those standards aren’t necessarily low—they could be quite high—but when they’re met, she is happy.
To understand the maximizer and the satisficer, consider my process of choosing a dentist. My criteria were that the office should be close to where I live and accept my health insurance. I found a list of accepted providers within a five-mile radius on my insurance company’s Web site and picked the first name that jumped out at me. I was satisficing. If I had been maximizing, I might have sought out recommendations from friends, looked at each dentist’s Web site, and read online reviews and rankings. I surely could have found a better dentist, one who went to a better med school, had a nicer waiting room, and used laughing gas. But those things weren’t important to me. I was happy with my decision because it was good enough.
The Context of Choice
The limitations of human cognition that Simon talked about make it virtually impossible for someone to be a pure maximizer. Maximizing and satisficing exist on a scale, one that researcher Barry Schwartz has set out to measure. The psychology of choice also varies by context. Someone may be a maximizer as a shopper, scouring coupon Web sites and reading Consumer Reports religiously, but a satisficer in her career, sticking with a job that won’t catapult her to the top of her field or make her rich and famous but will pay the bills and offer enough rewards to pass the threshold of acceptability.
When it comes to shopping, Allison Shearer is a maximizer. “If I’m looking for the perfect black boot,” she explains, “I’m not just gonna take any black boot. I’m going to search for the best one I can afford, even if that means having to wait for a sale.” When it comes to grocery shopping, however, her strategy changes. “I’m not going to three different stores to find the best peanut butter.” In relationships, she is also a satisficer: “I tend to see the best of whatever’s in front of me and just make it work.”
We make choices in many aspects of our lives: when we choose a partner, a house, a city to live in, a job, or a product. Being a maximizer or a satisficer—or, more precisely, making decisions with a maximizing strategy or a satisficing strategy—doesn’t just boil down to ambition versus complacency, snobbery versus settling, optimization versus adequacy, or perfectionism versus mediocrity. With each choice, we place ourselves somewhere on the maximizing/satisficing scale.
Most people assume that maximizers are happier than satisficers. When I described the terms to a friend, she asked, “Who would want to be a satisficer?” We see it played out in American stores every day—the more choices, the better. Sufficing sounds like settling. But in a blog for her latest book, The Happiness Project, writer Gretchen Rubin offers a joke that illustrates the biggest reason maximizing can backfire. “The curse of Yale Law School,” she writes, “is to try to die with your options open.”
Choices can overwhelm a maximizer. Consider, for example, the maximizer who lives in New York because it offers the “best of the best.” Living in a town of limited choices is anathema to this person. But when it comes time to choose a restaurant, the task is daunting. There are more than 18,600 restaurants in New York City, and new ones open every day. A maximizer spends so much time researching which restaurant is best that she’s exhausted before she ever even sets foot in her eatery of choice.
Research has supported the theory that sometimes more choice is less. In a 2000 study, participants were more likely to purchase gourmet jams when there were six options to choose from than when there were twenty-four, even though more people were initially attracted to the booth with more choices. Those who chose from fewer options reported greater satisfaction with their purchases.
Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers because they’re less prone to social comparison and regret. Maximizers experience “significantly less life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, and self-esteem,” Schwartz’s study reports, “and significantly more regret and depression.” While a maximizer’s objective outcome might be better (a nicer house, a more handsome spouse, a higher-paying job), the subjective outcome is less desirable if it entails anxiety, regret, or even the fear of regret.
Hillary Graham knows the feeling. “I think I’m a maximizer,” she says, “but it doesn’t necessarily make me happier.” Graham uses the example of her current relationship. She’s been dating her boyfriend for more than three years, but she has turned down his marriage proposal several times. “I’m always wondering if something better is out there,” she admits.
As a restaurant maximizer, I may have missed my calling as a food critic. Then again, I’m a career satisficer; I’ve found something I enjoy doing, and I think I’ll stick with it for a while. Does that make me happier? I’m not sure, but I won’t be pondering it at a restaurant. I’ve got more important decisions to weigh there.
Updated December 28, 2010