Satisficing refers to making a decision with the goal of satisfying or fulfilling some acceptable minimum requirement (instead of choosing the best option). Decision makers who adopt a satisficing strategy do not evaluate all the available alternatives. Instead, they accept the first “good enough” option that they encounter. Satisficing is thought to be a useful decision-making strategy given that people live with limited information-processing capacity in a world of complicated and difficult choices. The cost of expending the resources required to evaluate every available option is thought to be greater than the additional value that will be gained by selecting the best option instead of the good enough option. Satisficing is typically discussed as an alternative to maximizing (maximizing the value of a decision by comparing the value of all options and selecting the best one).
Satisficing Background and History
Historically, rational choice theory has strongly influenced how people study and think about decision making. When John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern published Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944, they introduced several different elements of rational decision making to the field of economics. Expected utility theory specifies that decision makers can assign an expected value to every alternative course of action. After an expected utility is assigned to every option, the alternative with the highest expected value will be selected.
However, although von Neumann and Morgan-stern’s work played a key role in the field of economics, psychologists began to demonstrate key ways in which actual decision makers systematically deviate from rational choice models. In the 1950s, Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon (economist and psychologist) published a series of papers in which he suggested that it is more useful to approach the study of decision making by acknowledging that actual decision makers have to approach complicated choices with limited information and limited cognitive resources available to them. Rational choice theory requires that all options can be thoroughly evaluated, which is not the case in the real world. Simon was the first to coin the term satisficing when he suggested that decision makers conserve resources by choosing to fulfill some minimum requirement instead of maximizing expected value. In more recent years, psychologist Barry Schwartz borrowed Simon’s term and discovered that individual people differ in the degree to which they tend to approach decisions with the goal of satisficing.
Individual Differences in Satisficing
Schwartz divided the world into “satisficers” versus “maximizers” when he identified existing individual differences in people’s tendencies to approach decisions with the goal of satisficing versus maximizing. He measured these differences through a maximization scale that he developed and administered to several thousand participants. Following are some examples of items found on the maximization scale:
“Renting videos is really difficult. I’m always struggling to pick the best one.”
“When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to.”
“Whenever I’m faced with a choice, I try to imagine what all the other possibilities are, even ones that aren’t present at the moment.”
Participants rated each statement on a 1 to 7 scale (ranging from completely disagree to completely agree). Schwartz did not define a strict cutoff that identifies maximizers versus satisficers, but he generally calls people maximizers if their average score is higher than 4 for all the items. Satisficers generally have an average score of less than 4. The distribution of scores for his participants was relatively symmetrical about the midpoint of the scale. About one third received an average score of more than 4.75 and one third scored under 3.25. The final third scored closer to the middle, somewhere between 3.25 and 4.75. In addition, approximately 1 of every 10 participants had an average score of more than 5.5 (extreme maximizers), and similarly, about 1 of every 10 had an average score of less than 2.5 (extreme satisficers).
Satisficing Importance and Implications
Schwartz also investigated implications of satisficing versus maximizing for decision makers’ experiences both during and after making a choice. People who are more apt to satisfice complete a less thorough search of all available options, make decisions faster, and are less likely to engage in social comparison while choosing. After the decision, satisficers are also more likely to evaluate decision outcomes more positively, despite apparently expending less effort in the process of making the choice. For example, after making a consumer choice, satisficers are less likely to reflect on the products that they didn’t choose and engage in “what if” thinking. Satisficers are happier with their choices and don’t feel as regretful as maximizers. They are less likely to ruminate and think counterfactually. In addition, satisficers are less aversely affected by an increase in the number of available alternatives. For the maximizer, more options can create anxiety because they make the goal of identifying the best one more difficult to achieve.
Satisficing has also been linked to many positive psychological outcomes. Schwartz administered general well-being scales to subjects and found that satisficers are less likely to be perfectionists and less likely to suffer from depression. They are happier, more optimistic, more satisfied with life, and have higher self-esteem. People who are least likely to employ satisficing strategies (extreme maximizers) tend to demonstrate depressive symptoms that are in the borderline clinical range.
Ironically, striving for the best and adopting an approach that most closely mirrors rational choice strategies can have negative consequences. People seem to need some choice to maintain happiness, and an initial increase in choice can increase happiness. However, evidence suggests that having too much choice can decrease happiness, particularly if a person does not adopt a satisficing approach. In a complicated world with limitless options, satisficing might be the most rational approach to making decisions.
- Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: HarperCollins.
- 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(5), 1178-1197.
- von Neumann, J., & Morgenstern, O. (1944). Theory of games and economic behavior. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.