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’.
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?
- Schwartz, B. et al. (2002) Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178-1197.
- Iyengar, S., Wells, R., & Schwartz, B. (2006). Doing Better but Feeling Worse: Looking for the “Best” Job Undermines Satisfaction Psychological Science, 17 (2), 143-150 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01677.x
- Lyubomirsky, S. & Ross, L. (1997) Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1141–1157.
- Iyengar, S.S. & Lepper, M.R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.
- Simon, H.A. (1979), Models of Thought. Yale University Press.
Related post: Can you be positive about uncertainty?