One thing you can say without fear of contradiction about the modern world is that we have more choice than ever before. Choice about careers; lifestyles; which city or suburb to live in; which house to buy; which car to buy; which school to send our kids to; which university to go to ourselves; which supermarket to shop in; which clothes to wear; which washing powder to buy; how to have our coffee; a never-ending list of choices assail us everywhere we go. How do we make these choices?
Research by psychologist Barry Schwartz from Swarthmore College in the States has shown that people consistently make choices in different ways. Some are maximizers – they keep looking until they have found the best possible choice among all of the alternatives. Others are satisficers – they search until they have found a choice that is good enough and then stop. People are all somewhere along this continuum, so some are more maximizers (more obsessive!) than others, and some satisficers are less selective than others. Where are you?
Comparing myself and my husband I have to say that I am a maximizer and he is a satisficer. When we are shopping for new spectacles, for example, I find a pair of spectacles I like and then I keep looking to see if there is anything better that I like more. He will find one that he likes, presumably that meets the criteria he had set, and buys them then and there. We constantly amaze (and annoy) each other to the point where it’s better if we don’t go shopping together.
Which decision style is better? Schwarz found that maximizers spent longer making a decision, as you would expect, but then they were less satisfied with their choices than the satisficers. Satisficers make a decision, are satisfied with the decision, and then move on. Maximizers, perhaps, are still looking around afterwards to see if they could have made a better choice even after it is too late. Satisficers are happier.
If you have identified yourself as a maximizer, how can you be more satisfied with the choices you make? Well, for a start, you might try to be more selective about which decisions you agonise over. If you are spending more than five minutes choosing a birthday card or a washing powder then perhaps you are not valuing your own time sufficiently. Keep the agonizing for the big decisions – the choice of schools, jobs, homes, partners, and set yourself goals for the small decisions to choose within a set time limit or within a restricted range.
Christopher Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.