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.

“Should I support that Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign?”

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

The growth of “crowdfunding” or “crowdsourcing” sites such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Indiegogo has created a sort of privatized lottery system, whereby if you can design the right appeal for a product, cause, or someone in need, and it happens to gain momentum, then you may be buoyed by monies from complete strangers over the course of a few weeks.

To be sure, most crowdfunding campaigns do not go viral and do not raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite occasional news stories suggesting that if you merely ask for it, then it will come. Many campaigns fail dismally. (Hence, the lottery-like quality to the whole deal.) However, crowdfunding has evolved into a viable option for entrepreneurs, social causes, and personal appeals.

If you Google around a bit, you’ll find plenty of advice on how to design a crowdfunding campaign. But what if you’re on the receiving end of those requests? Over the last year, I’ve looked at several dozen crowdfunding campaign requests, either through sites such as the ones mentioned above, or via more informal means such as Facebook.

At times, I will happily support a crowdfunding campaign for a good cause, interesting new product, or an individual facing tough times. On other occasions I might decide not to contribute.

For what it’s worth — and I’m not claiming to be the first or last word on this — here’s what I look for when approached by a crowdfunding appeal:

1. Above all, is the request a legitimate one? There are so many factors that go into this assessment, including the individuals involved, the nature of the funding request, and the information provided in the crowdfunding appeal.  This question pervades many other considerations discussed below.

Whether it’s supporting a niche business idea, helping to launch new social venture, or lending a hand to someone in need, I want my contribution to have a positive impact. While this applies specially to larger amounts of money, it’s relevant even if we’re talking about modest donations.

The integrity of a crowdfunding campaign depends in large part on its sponsor(s). Are they identified? Do they have an online presence? If you don’t know them or of them, can you otherwise verify the legitimacy of the request?

2. Is the funding campaign “fixed” or “flexible”? A fixed campaign specifies that if the minimum listed amount isn’t raised, then no one will be charged. By contrast, a flexible campaign takes your money even if the stated dollar goal isn’t reached. I tend to favor fixed campaigns because they tell me that the sponsor is confident in the appeal and its chances of success.

In considering an appeal from a high dollar flexible campaign, I will weigh whether (a) it’s an organization or individual I know; (b) the appeal (including the amount) is realistic and well articulated, and (c) I strongly support the project on its merits. At times, if a flexible campaign seems promising but perhaps overly ambitious or not too well thought out, then I’ll wait to see if it’s attracting a lot of support. If not, there’s a chance that others have the same concerns.

Let’s suppose, for example, that someone is asking for $25,000 for a project on a flexible funding basis. If, say, my $75 contribution is part of only $1,000 raised in total, then I may feel like a bit of a chump, having sent money to a project that isn’t even close to having sufficient funds to go ahead. On the other hand, I may so strongly believe in the project and its sponsor(s) that I will quickly make a contribution, knowing that they will use the money wisely even if they fall short of their fundraising goal.

3. Is there a sufficiently detailed budget? I want to know how the money will be used. I’ve read compelling appeals that are specific and detailed. I’ve read others for amounts around $5,000, $25,000, or even (yup) $100,000 that tell me very little. Guess who is more likely to get my contribution?

When foundations consider grant applications, they typically required a fairly detailed budget. Having both written and evaluated grant proposals, I know that writing out these budgets can be a pain, and frankly there’s often some guesswork involved. Nevertheless, it’s about transparency and accountability. Likewise, crowdfunded campaigns should provide a budget, too. If someone is asking for money in a public way, it is reasonable to expect some specificity concerning how the funds will be used.

4. If it’s a personal appeal for, or behalf of, an individual in need, then how credible does it sound? This is a difficult question, loaded with personal biases relating to who is “deserving” of help, and subject to the narrative skills of the person(s) writing the funding appeal.

Here are the personal appeals that cause me to back away fast: They tend to ask for larger sums of money, often five or six figures or more. Some sound excessive or suggest a failure to explore options. A few smack of The Secret on hallucinogens; it’s as if someone sat down and thought, I sure could use $100,000, so let’s go for it and maybe my request goes viral.

However, especially in this age of massive wealth inequality, economic uncertainty, and a frazzled social safety net, it’s also true that a lot of people are struggling to pay their bills and to put food on their tables. We should keep our hearts open to personal appeals, while considering them carefully.

5. What do the perks, if any, say about the attractiveness and integrity of the funding request? On occasion I’ve funded something because the perk(s) offered seemed pretty cool. Maybe a perk includes the very product I’d like to support. Or perhaps it gives me a good feeling of connection with the people organizing the campaign.

On other occasions I’ve declined to fund something because the perk(s) seemed cheesy or, well, insincere. By the latter, I mean that the perks were somewhat contrived and, in some cases, appeared to be deliberately difficult to fulfill. If, say, a $500 donation to a national campaign gets you a face-to-face cup of coffee with the project organizer, but you have to fly halfway across the country on your dime for that latte, then this should tell you something about the campaign sponsor’s regard for potential contributors — regardless of whether you can afford that level of support.

6. Is the funding request on behalf of an abused animal, or a beloved pet who needs expensive surgery? Put a sad looking little doggie or kitty cat on the funding page with a cry for help, and my critical evaluative skills often go out the window. Unless the critter is Cujo, I’m fumbling through my wallet for my credit card. Yup, I’m a sucker.


This post was revised in December 2015.

McDonald’s Big Mac ad hits a new low

From the Orange Line, Boston subway (photo by DY)

From the Orange Line, Boston subway (photo by DY)

McDonald’s is now pitching Big Macs by making fun of public service ads for people who may need mental health counseling.

Here’s the ad I saw while riding the Orange Line of the Boston subway on Sunday: It features a woman looking down with her head buried in her hand, with the text including (1) a large main caption “You’re Not Alone,” (2) a much smaller caption “Millions of people love the Big Mac,” and (3) an 800 phone number at the bottom. (Yes, I called it. It’s McD’s corporate phone number.)

I don’t think I’m being oversensitive or too “PC” about this. If you ride the subway regularly, you often see public service ads depicting a person in obvious distress, captioned with a few supportive words, and listing a phone number to reach a sympathetic ear. We’re living in difficult times. There are a lot of people who are struggling with their mental and emotional health. They may be highly stressed out, depressed, or even suicidal.

The ad writers and executives in McDonald’s high-priced marketing operation missed the boat badly on this one. I’m sorry, but the ad is just too close to the real thing to be funny.


April 10 update: McDonald’s has responded by saying this was part of an ad campaign that never got formal approval from corporate central, and they’ve ordered the ads pulled. Details here from Eric Randall at Boston Magazine, who has been following the story. (It sounds like McD’s will be be revisiting their protocols in working with advertisers because of this.)

At this point I’m a little bemused by how this story has turned mini-viral. Popular Boston blog Universal Hub and Time magazine’s Brad Tuttle also picked up the story, and I had to decline an interview with Boston’s Channel 5 News because I’m out of town.

I deliberately tried to write the post in a way that was pointed but non-inflammatory, so it’s quite interesting to see how something like this grows legs.


April 11 update: And the Boston Business Journal‘s Galen Moore pulled the story together, including more about the Arnold advertising firm apparently responsible for the snafu.


April 12 update: To my surprise, the story has gone viral, with coverage ranging from ABC News to the Daily Mail over in the U.K. In addition, the mental health community has been weighing in. Here’s the lede from Marie Szaniszlo’s piece in the Boston Herald:

Mental health advocates yesterday blasted a McDonald’s ad on the MBTA that appears at first to be a public service announcement targeting people suffering from depression.

“It’s really too bad because it trivializes the whole issue of depression,” said Julie Totten, executive director of Waltham-based Families for Depression Awareness, which has been running an ad of its own on the T for its Strides Against Stigma Walk on April 27 at Boston University. “We’re trying to say when you need help, it’s not a laughing matter. We don’t want people to feel stigmatized or made fun of.”

What if we paid less attention to advertising?

From its modest beginnings, advertising has grown into a one trillion dollar a year industry and the single biggest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race.

Adbusters, The Big Ideas of 2011

I once joked on Facebook that Apple is so good at marketing that it could package horse manure in a box, sell it as “i-Krap” high-end fertilizer, and make a mint from it.

Heck, I’d probably buy a box myself, and believe me, I’m no gardener. It’s just that whenever I go into an Apple store, I want to hand over my credit card and ask them to bring me new gadgets in shiny boxes.

Galbraith got it right

One of my intellectual heroes, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, brilliantly dissected the post-World War II American economy in classics such as American Capitalism, The Affluent Society, and The New Industrial State. Among other things, he articulated the central role of modern advertising in creating consumer demand.

Galbraith noted that advertising started out as being merely descriptive, and people could make rational purchasing decisions accordingly. But then sales pitches became manipulative, crafted around persuasive appeals to induce purchases. This became especially prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s, when the American economy was going full throttle and the nation’s middle class was flourishing.

It’s not just the big corporations

Fancy advertising isn’t limited to the corporate world. In my industry of higher education, colleges and universities spend students’ tuition money and alumni contributions to produce fancy, glossy brochures that make them sound like the dreamiest places imaginable.

And let’s not forget that every election season we’re treated to a bevy of spin, half-truths, and outright lies in the form of advertising for candidates we like and don’t like. Talk about piles of i-Krap!

In the meantime

What if the need for cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s were marketed with the same fervor as efforts to sell fancy cars, clothing, and electronics? What if appeals to end world hunger or support public education appeared on television as frequently as pharmaceutical commercials or political ads?

If we’re going to allow ourselves to be manipulated, then at least we should be cajoled into supporting stuff that can really make a difference in our lives and those of others.

We’d have to rework work

Of course, if humans developed a stronger immunity to modern advertising, we’d have to rework the world of work dramatically.

Why? Because if we based our purchases of goods and services on purely descriptive information and reviews from previous consumers, it is likely that our spending patterns would change mightily. This would have a significant effect on the kinds of organizations that are viable and the types of work that need performing.

Do what I say, not what I have done

I plead guilty to being influenced by effective advertising and make no claim of complete immunity in the future. However, I think it would benefit all of us to ask whether a potential purchase will truly bring us satisfaction or fulfill a bonafide need. Those few seconds of pause may save us from making purchases that clutter up our homes, eat up gobs of time, or otherwise do not deliver true value.

In closing, I’d like to recommend a book, Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009). (Yes, I’m shilling for a product!) Over the years I have read, or tried to read, several books promising to make me less of a pack rat. This is the first one that resonates with me, tossing in some insightful psychology along with sound how-to advice.

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