Strategies for Decision Making: When is “Good Enough” Better than “Best”?

Jill Iman, Director of Evaluation, Research and Implementation Science at Joining Vision and Action

This story, with implications for decision making strategies (I promise), begins last weekend when I finally gave into a longing that had been building for, dare I say, a few years—I was going to buy some “nicer” patio furniture. Upon committing myself to the act of purchasing some new deck chairs, I informed my husband that among our many Saturday errands, we would need to visit the seasonal home and garden section of Target for some patio purchases.

His reply caught me a little off guard (and frankly, took some of the wind out of my sails): “Have you looked online yet to see what people are recommending and if Target is even the best place?” I—a professional researcher—was being asked if I had researched. My response? “Well, no, I just want to go see what they have and if they have something that looks like what I have in mind, is decently priced and is comfortable, then I am going to get it.”

Maximizing vs. Satisficing

That’s when it dawned on me that we had found ourselves in what Barry Schwartz first outlined in 2000[i]: In that moment, I was acting like a satisficer (I wanted to make a decision once my standards were met and then move on) while my husband was acting like a maximizer (he wanted to make the very best decision).

Like any good social psychological concept, whether you are a maximizer or satisficer is context dependent. So while with patio furniture, I may act like a satisficer, I may act like a maximizer when it comes to choosing my job. What’s interesting is that there are consequences that can come with whether we tend to be a maximizer or a satisficer that go well beyond the immediate decision.

Consequences of Decision Making Strategy on Happiness

Research[ii] suggests that satisficers tend to:

  • Be happier
  • Be more optimistic
  • Have higher self esteem
  • Have higher life satisfaction

Contrastingly, maximizers tend to have higher rates of regret and depression (although they do tend to earn more money). In other words, because maximizers seek perfection, in contrast to satisficers who seek good enough, they keep their eyes out for better options even after making a decision and are more likely to compare themselves to others, which—in a world full of choices and options—can lead to feeling bad about their decisions—or even about themselves.

Additional Considerations: Ask Yourself

While most of the research on maximizers and satisficers has been done on consumer behaviors (e.g., shopping for entertainment, food, clothing, etc.), some work has also examined how this can play out in other domains, such as interpersonal relationships or making predictions about the future.

More than anything, it’s interesting to be aware of, and to ask yourself, whether in your work or when buying patio furniture: when might good enough be better than best? When might a strategic or business decision be better served through satisficing, allowing you to act and move forward—or by maximizing, ensuring you are considering every option and choosing the very best?

Read more blogs by Jill.

[i] Schwartz, B. (200). Self determination: The tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist, 55, 79-88. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.79

[ii] 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. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.83.5.1178

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