Are you a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?

Here’s a fun little discussion starter: When you check out a restaurant menu, shop at a store, consider job opportunities, or even assess social companions, are you a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?

A maximizer, according psychology professor Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore College), prefers to survey all possible choices in search of the very best option, even if it takes a lot of time to sift through the possibilities. A satisficer, by contrast, prefers to consider enough options to find one that works, and then selects it and moves on.

Schwartz discusses the maximizer vs. satisficer distinction in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2004), in which he harnesses psychological data to show that an overabundance of choices can fuel anxieties, indecision, and unrealistically high expectations. This inquiry is especially relevant in cultures that place large premiums on having abundant consumer, vocational, and personal options.

Okay, but you may be asking, who is happier, the maximizer or the satisficer? The answer is, at least in terms of statistical probability, the satisficer. The maximizer is more likely to be daunted by the array of options and to second guess a decision. The satisficer is more likely to find a choice that works and not worry about the rest. Ultimately, suggests Schwartz, the satisficer approach is a happiness maximizer!

Of course, few people are embedded at either extreme, and for some, maximizer vs. satisficer traits may vary according to the situation. You may access Schwartz’s neat little 2004 Scientific American article that includes his 13-question survey and 7-point scale to help determine where you land on the spectrum.

***

Me? I’m mostly a satisficer. I tend to assess my options and make my choices quickly. And if the result is pretty good, then I’m okay with it and rarely look back and wonder “what if.” Not always, but usually. 

I first learned about the maximizer vs. satisficer distinction in a free online course, “The Science of Happiness,” taught by leading experts in positive psychology. Here’s my write-up about the course, including a link to the course registration information.

5 responses

  1. Boy I’ll have to read that because I have known some friends and a couple well matched family members over the years who have been blessed with the financial resources to deliberately consider and reflect progress toward then later redirect their efforts toward some purposeful focus of their creativity and industry. And sometimes they have spent a year or five transitioning from the last vocational thrust their life took and the next entrepreneurial adventure and I have to say with perhaps one exception they were happy. No not the blissfully happy and granted at times the superficial performed display of happy but by and large the rich sense that their life has meaning and value. And that would seem, from your synopsis to contradict the argument taken up in the book.

    • Thanks for your comment! I don’t think the maximizer/satisficer spectrum is in any way inconsistent with thoughtful, contemplative planning and decision making. Rather, it refers to how being too caught up in an abundance of options accompanied by a habit of second guessing one’s choice can lead to less satisfaction.

  2. I guess where I was coming at it is that with wealth come greater options and the safety to be more deliberative in charting one’s future. But I’ll have to read it, I got it on audio and just keep putting it off so now I’ll give it a listen.

    • I agree that someone with more money and time has the flexibility of more options, but Schwartz’s thesis is grounded more in personality traits than socioeconomic factors. For e.g., a strong maximizer with more money may have more consumer options, yet still be more prone to second guessing his choice, while a strong satisficer with less money will be happier with a sufficiently good choice even if some options were foreclosed to her due to income.

      That said, there’s a definite social critique in what Schwartz has to say: Our emphasis on endless choices does not necessarily make us happier; in fact, it may be doing the opposite.

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