Principle 2: Satisfice – Decision Making Tips From Matone Mental Health Pros

Decision Making  – Matone Counseling & Testing  –  Sacrifice

By: Daniel Crow, MAC, LCMHCA

When I was a young adult, with my entire life ahead of me and every path open before me, or so it seemed, I remember sitting in a coffee shop with my special notebook—soon to become notebooks—which was dedicated to my impending career decision. I was trying to decide what to do “when I grew up.” That I was already arguably a grown-up created an atmosphere of anxiety surrounding the choice. I felt behind. As I understood the world at that time, there were certain milestones of adulthood and the proper order in which you arrived at them: first, you establish your career; then, you find a partner; next, you buy a home together; finally, you have 2.5 children. (In my youth, I did not understand how life plans can fall apart.) Given that plan, the first step to proper adulthood was straightforward: I needed to get a job.

In my trusty notebook(s), I provided every intriguing profession with its own section and each variety of this profession its own subsection. For example, one career I was considering was to become a professor. But a professor of what? Did I want to spend my life studying anthropology? Or psychology? Or religion? Or philosophy? In my notebook, I reserved a subsection for each of these varieties of professorship and resolved to diligently research them all. I did the same for other career paths. Maybe I wanted to be a lawyer? If so, did I want to be an immigration lawyer, an international lawyer, or a defender of animal rights? Or maybe I wanted to be a psychologist? Or an author? Or an editor?

While this notebook was initially empowering, it soon became a source of misery.

When I picked it up, it felt impossible heavy given its size; and when I looked at it, I felt like my head was going to explode, and then I needed to take a nap. When I woke up, I was no closer to making a decision than when I closed my eyes. What was wrong with me? Looking at my situation objectively, I could see that the world was my oyster. Yet instead of approaching my decisions with a sense of adventure, boldness, and zest, I shriveled up and shrunk before them. Worse than miserable, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t make myself choose.  

In a previous article in this series, I defended the folk wisdom that you should trust your gut when making complex decisions. For this career decision, instead of trusting my gut, I was relying entirely on rational analysis. That’s one thing that was wrong with my approach. But that’s not all that was wrong. There was, I now see, a second issue that is symptomatic of a deeper cultural problem: I was approaching the decision as a maximizer rather than a satisficer.

By definition, maximizers strive to make the very best choice while satisficers aim to make a good enough choice. This fundamental difference in decision-making orientation is reflected in a range of different behaviors—some uncanny in their specificity. As indicated on the Maximization Scale, which assesses maximizing tendencies, maximizers tend to surf the radio and television, even when they like what’s on; they try on lots of clothes before making a purchase and return clothing items frequently; and they like articles that rank consumer goods (e.g., Top 10 Series on Netflix). 

As a mantra, they agree with the phrase: “Never settle for second best.” If this sounds like you, beware: you might be a maximizer.

This is bad news because, as psychologist Barry Schwarz argues in The Paradox of Choice, maximizers are less content with their decisions and less happy with their lives overall compared with satisficers. Schwarz’s titular paradox explains why this is so. The “paradox of choice” is that as freedom (defined as the number of options) increases beyond a certain optimal number, satisfaction plummets. One reason that having more options generates less happiness is the difficulty of making the best decision when choosing among so many options—and the regret that results from not choosing well.  

Of course, this logic applies more clearly to maximizers than satisficers. While having more options makes it harder to identify the best option, which is the maximizer’s goal, it makes it easier to find a “good enough” option, which is the satisficer’s modest ambition. So, our consumerist society intensifies the misery of maximizers and eases satisfaction for satisficers. The upshot: if you want to be happier, become a satisficer.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. For maximizers, maximizing impulses run so deep, and maximizing habits operate so automatically, that the transformation into a satisficer requires deep psychic surgery–which, by the way, is a great description of psychotherapy. Below I offer three tips for learning to satisfice. By reading this article, you’re already doing the first.  

1. Become aware of your maximizing habits. 

As I suggested, maximizers maximize instinctively and unconsciously. They live by the mantra, “Never settle for second best,” and they are confused when you suggest (for example) that they rest content in their choice of career, partner, or spatula, knowing fully well that a better option might be out there. The unreasonable standard that everything in our lives should “spark joy” reinforces the maximizing mindset. As always, becoming aware of bad habits is the first step to changing them. Naming the destructive behavior aloud, or confessing it to a partner, can be helpful as well. “Honey,” you might say, “I read Marie Kondo today, and now I’ve been on Amazon for 30 minutes reading reviews of spatulas. I think I’m maximizing again! Help!”

2. Make second-order decisions about which decisions to maximize.

But old habits die hard. For many maximizers, one difficulty with satisficing is that it feels like “settling,” with everything that word connotes: laziness, lack of passion, poor taste. If you’re used to wearing sunglasses in your favorite color, it’s uncomfortable to wear a tortoise shell. So, make the transformation gradually. Schwartz advises that we make second-order decisions about which decisions to maximize. You might decide to maximize only the big decisions but to go with “Amazon’s Choice” for all kitchenware. The downside of this compromise is that it is likely to leave you feeling more satisfied with your spatula than your spouse. But, baby steps—and maybe your more forgiving attitude toward your spatula will someday bleed into your marriage.

3. Grieve the tradeoffs.

One reason maximizers maximize is to avoid the agony of tradeoffs. If they can find the perfect option, then they don’t have to experience the discomfort of not getting exactly what they want. That’s why I was, as a young man, diligently researching every career path. I was looking for the perfect option—the one with every advantage and no downsides. However, as with other painful emotions, a better strategy than avoiding tradeoffs is to learn to grieve them. So, give yourself permission to feel sad about all the unchosen paths—and all the unrealized versions of you.

In the advice column Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed responds to an aging man who is trying to decide whether to have children. As the man is keenly aware, there are advantages and disadvantages to either choice. Like any good advice-giver, Strayed doesn’t tell the man what to do. Instead, she recasts the man’s dilemma in mythical terms and strikes a bittersweet note, which, I believe, should be in the theme song for all of life’s heartbreaking decisions. She writes:

“I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”


Daniel Crow, MAC, LCMHCA, is a mental health counselor and staff writer with Matone Counseling and Testing