Are you a maximiser or a satisficer?

Imagine that you were receiving feedback on something you had worked on along with a colleague. Which of these two scenarios would you prefer?

  • Scenario 1: You receive great feedback from your supervisor, but your colleague receives even better feedback.
  • Scenario 2: You receive really negative feedback from your supervisor but your colleague receives significantly worse feedback.

On the face of it, Scenario 1 seems to be the best situation; you are receiving great feedback rather than negative feedback. However, in one study, certain people experiencing Scenario 2 reported feeling happier and more self confident than those experiencing Scenario 1. They would rather do better than their peers even if it meant performing much worse overall. Not everyone felt this way, though. In fact, it was only people who reported themselves as being generally unhappy who engaged in this social comparison. Happy people were just pleased to get a good report and didn’t measure themselves against other people.

What makes some people more sensitive to their relative success than to their absolute success? And what implications does this have for career decision making?

According to Barry Schwartz and his colleagues the unhappy people are ‘maximisers’ and the happy people are ‘saticficers’.

Multiple choices

Having multiple choices can be difficult

According to rational decision theory, the best way to make a choice is to have a complete set of criteria weighted by importance and then to evaluate all the possible options available to determine how well they satisfy these criteria. The best alternative is the one which provides the maximum overall satisfaction or ‘expected utility’.

In real life, discovering all the possible options is an extremely difficult task, and finding complete information about their potential to satisfy your needs is pretty much impossible. Add to this the limited processing capacity of the human brain, which means that the more choices you have available the less likely you are to make a decision at all, and you have a recipe for complete confusion. But this doesn’t stop some people from trying to hold out for the perfect answer. These people are maximisers. They always try to find the best possible option.

Satisficers, on the other hand, don’t want to waste their lives straining to find the perfect solution. They are content to discover something that is ‘good enough’. They work out a way of comparing the options they encounter. They decide on a minimum standard of acceptability. As soon as they come across an alternative that meets or exceeds their threshold of satisfaction, they stop searching. It’s good enough; why bother looking any further?

Surely, the people who hold out for the best option should be happier than the ones who settle for good enough. But, no. The opposite is the case. the maximisers keep worrying that they might have missed something better. Maybe they haven’t got the best solution after all. Whereas the satisficers just get on with enjoying the choice they have made.

Maximisers are competitive. Knowing that someone else has done better makes it difficult for them to be satisfied with their result, even if it’s well above the average. This makes it quite hard to be happy with life.

Here are a few questions from the paper which might indicate whether you are a maximiser or not:

  • When you make a choice, how often are you curious about what would have happened if you had chosen differently?
  • How often do feel satisfied with a choice until you discover that there might have been something better?
  • Are you always looking for better options, a better job, a better partner than the one you have?
  • How would you feel about settling for second best?

And more questions…

  • Have you come across clients who are trying to maximise their career choice and making themselves unhappy in the process?
  • Have you ever encouraged a client to engage in satisficing?
  • When does satisficing stop being an efficient decision making strategy and when does it start being laziness about proper research?

Further reading

Related post: Can you be positive about uncertainty?

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  1. #1 by Laura on 25 January 2010 - 11:39

    Leaving aside the arguments I’ve just been having in my head about the researchers interpretations of selecting one scenario over the other!..

    Interesting article thank you. Reminds me to always check whether any discomfort with maximising or satisfising is in me, not my client and conversely which I might be more likely to miss as causing my client stress.

    In terms of my guidance I would be careful not to assume that being a maximiser is ‘making’ my client unhappy. And if it is does it matter?

    Isn’t ‘happiness’ as defined by a questionnaire potentially overrated and irrelevant to an individual client and the process of their career choice? Competitive types might see settling for what feels like a final ‘happy’ decision pretty pointless and just not what they’re focusing on.

    I’d feel a bit depressed if too many clients who are maximisers felt encouraged or compelled to be satisficers. (Especially when so many other factors might be pushing them that way just now). We could feed into a far too common feeling about Careers professionals stiffling ambition.

    I realise that isn’t what this article is urging us to do. But I wonder if more Careers professional are satisfiers so it could be a danger. We certainly appreciate that career options and research is infinite and many have ‘settled’ on this career after other paths.

    • #2 by David Winter on 25 January 2010 - 20:28

      Laura
      Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

      So many really interesting points, I don’t know where to start.

      I guess I was inspired to write the post because I do see a number of clients who seem to be searching for the ‘perfect career’. And maybe because I have some maximising tendencies myself, I’m tempted to perpetuate the myth that there is a perfect career to discover, rather than exploring the possibility of how they could make the most of one of the perfectly good options they already have in front of them. Have you come across people like that and what tendencies does it bring out in you?

      Your question about how useful ‘happiness’ is as a goal in career coaching is a really big one. Is being constantly discontented with your career a valid outcome for some people because striving towards something even better is part of what drives them and gives them satisfaction? Perhaps my sample is biased because I only see people who are unhappy about their careers and want to change something because of that. I probably don’t see many people who have a competitive hunger and want to keep it. Can you survive if you never feel satisfied?

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. Please keep them coming.

  2. #3 by Laura on 26 January 2010 - 12:05

    “Can you survive if you never feel satisfied?”
    Pretty sure I wouldn’t survive if satisfied! With maximising tendencies is there even the capacity to imagine such a thing?

    I do find myself regularly saying there probably is no ONE perfect career for you, but… Perhaps for an S that should end ‘but lots of great ones’ for a M just ‘but lots’.

    I thought my own maximising tendencies weren’t a problem in terms of perpetuating “that myth”. But found it hard to type the word ‘myth’ there. Oops, I like to hang on in there with clients to the chance that there could be.

    So my weakness is your very good point about people not always having a competitive hunger they want to keep. (Or even drive to keep striving if wouldn’t call competitive in obvious sense). Good reminder for me to look out for those who are struggling striving for something else and exploring options when they don’t WANT to be.

    Can anyone with more of a satisficer tendency give any helpful tips for a M to consider with an S client?

    I’m sometimes thrown because ‘allowing’ a client to feel comfortable with a good enough option can be enjoyable particularly at end of long day, it feels restful and tidy. But can make me feel a bit guilty – like neither of us have worked hard enough.

    E.g. Recently I struggled with exploring what a client wanted from a career and the criteria still being very short list. I asked ‘so of the list you got from PP which job most appealed’. A pathetic last resort attempt to get a new lead. ‘XXX’ she said and for her that seemed to be ‘fine’. I ended feeling ok great, she doesn’t have any ‘except that..or buts’ fair enough. But I don’t know..maybe should have done more to make her less satisfied with that??

    • #4 by David Winter on 26 January 2010 - 23:50

      Thanks Laura
      I’m not sure I actually believe that people are maximisers all the time or satisficers all the time. It depends on the circumstances (such as how tired you are at the end of the day – I can identify with that).

      Before I came across maximisers and satisficers I my thinking about decision making was illuminated by MBTI. Some people like to make a choice as quickly as possible and feeling of completeness in having made the decision is almost more important than making the right decision. Other people like to keep their options open as long as possible – sometimes indefinitely – while they keep looking for more information.

      A couple of techniques that I developed based on the MBTI division might be appropriate for the Ms and Ss.

      For people who like to keep their options open (maximisers?) I will sometimes suggest that they rank the options they have at the moment by the number of future options that branch out from them. So if one of your career choices has the potential to develop in lots of different directions, this scores higher than something with only one narrow path. That way you make choices which maximise your future choices.

      For this type of person I might also suggest that they have a trial run pretending to choose. They could imagine that they had chosen one option – for the next week they have to act as if they had chosen that option. At the end of the week they move on to the next option and pretend they have chosen that one. And so on, until they can compare what it felt like to choose each option. Which one was hardest to give up?

      For those keen to make a decision, you might encourage them to set a date in the future at which they will make the decision. Until then it’s exploration time. They have to come up with as many options as they can in that time. At the end of the time they can choose the best option they have encountered.

      With both groups, it can be helpful to frame this as the first of a series of provisional decisions. With the possibility of changing career being much easier nowadays, it is sensible to see the first choice as an initial approximation after which you gather information for the next approximation.

      Do other people have techniques that they use with different decision making problems?

    • #5 by David Winter on 26 January 2010 - 23:51

      By the way, did you catch the post on Positive Compromise which sparked a debate with some similar themes?

  3. #6 by Laura on 28 January 2010 - 10:03

    Very helpful techniques for balancing M/S or MBTI J/P tendencies.
    I shall make use of those thank you!

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