Maximsers and satisficers in decision making
Nobody ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his (or her) choices.
Alfred A. Montapert
A week ago, I was asked by an aspiring professional about my advice when applying for jobs. The question went like this, “I have seen a lot of jobs out there, that I would quite like, but not the job that I really want. Should I apply for the jobs that would be good but I might not enjoy or wait for the dream job and go for that?”
I didn’t have a straight answer for the chap, but I was sympathetic for a potentially tricky situation.
In favour – there is an advantage to taking a role and being in work. Finding the dream job can take time and in the meantime experienced can be accrued elsewhere.
Against – being seen to be applying for every job going. This can come across as not knowing what you want to do or being unfocused. If the employer or association undermines your values, then this will rub off on you too and it could end up being a bad experience.
The work of Barry Schwartz (an expert in decision making) is helpful to develop our understanding in these situations. In his excellent book – The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less – he explores how we are drowned by the tsunami of inputs and options – and there is a rising cost of having to make more and more decisions. He shares, for example, a study that found when students presented with either a box of six or thirty of the same standard chocolates, they rated the smaller array as tasting better. Schwartz argues that limiting choices reduces a form of decision making overload-anxiety often observed in the rich and developing nations. Technology, for example, was supposed to save us time, but it has brought us back to a foraging nature sifting through thousands of options to find what we really need. Schwartz highlights three effects of the mushrooming of our choices and options;
– Each decision requires more effort
– Mistakes are more likely
– The consequences of those mistakes are greater
Schwartz shares a division of people into ‘maximisers” and “satisficers”
Maximisers are people who are not happy unless they have made “the best” choice. Hence they will consider every option, weigh up all of the pros and cons before making a decision.
Satisficers are those willing to settle for what is merely “good enough” without needing to make sure of all of the options. Satisficers have certain criteria that if met will make the choice for them.
The idea was introduced by economist Herbert Simon in the 1950s, showing that if you take into account the time taken to make the decision – satisficing is the best strategy. Schwartz found that while maximisers make objectively better decisions, subjectively they do not, i.e. they might make a better choice, but the choice might not necessarily make them happy.
The maximisers are not defined by “good to great” clichés, instead they would benefit from Voltaire’s “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. The maximiser can benefit from stepping back from a situational choice that could cause an inordinate amount of time to scope, plot and select, instead to establish the priorities of elements that they’d most appreciate. Then be able to test whether a given option adds value against those options.
Schwartz points out that because greater choice brings greater opportunities and with it the cost of comparison, the recipe for happiness with your ‘lot’ and contentment with your choice is simple;
– Where appropriate make your decisions irreversible
– Constantly appreciate the life you do have
So, in answer to the question which was posed to me at the beginning, the two criteria can’t be simultaneously applied to the aspiring professional’s career choices. However, when considering those at the beginning of their career, being a maximiser might be a recipe for being stuck in the waiting game.
Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.
Salvador Dali

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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