Judith Lautner (judith) wrote,
Judith Lautner

Maximizing and satisficing

I am reading a book recommended by a blogger who writes about shopping, of all things. The book is The Paradox of Choice. The message is primarily that most of us have too many choices, that the ever-enlarging array of choices available to us, in life, in shopping, in education, in everything, ultimately can make us less happy than we are with fewer choices. I suspect that many of us have come to this conclusion intuitively.

Initially I thought the book was a bit lightweight. It isn't a large book and it is written simply, and the first few chapters tended to offer generalizations without much documentation. I kept noticing what was left out, how some different angles might get different results. But as I got farther into the book - I'm not done yet but well over half-way - I became convinced that this book is important.

Never mind that it uses the term "satisficing". I tend to object to made-up words because there are so many words out there now that there is bound to be one or two that already do what the new one is supposed to do. In this case the made-up word is "satisficing", a word that apparently combines "satisfying" and "sacrificing", although because it was made up by someone else several years ago I don't know for sure. Well, heck, I can find out.

Wikipedia says:

The word satisfice was coined by Herbert Simon. Simon pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations: This is called bounded rationality.

Never mind about the origin. I might actually have to read one of Simon's books to find out the specific origins of the word. It's not important.

In the choices we make in our lives, we are either primarily "maximizers" or "satisficers". Maximizers try to find the very best; satisficers determine the minimum requirements that must be met, look for that and if they find it they are satisfied. In most of my decisions I am a satisficer. I like to do the research but once I find a satisfactory choice I don't worry much that there will be a slightly better one just down the road. Some people consider satisficers "settlers" but that isn't correct. We aren't settling for less than we want.

The other day I set out to get a new cell phone. The one I had was beaten up, had poor quality sound, and produced photographs that were not too good. I had talked to Mary about her new phone and learned that she had a Motorola Razr. I looked that one up and it looked like a good option for me. I went to the cell phone store.

In the middle of the selection of phones was a Razr. I said yes to it. I came home happy. To get the $50 discount on the phone I had to sign another two-year contract, which was fine with me. It turned out that the plan I have is an excellent one and really did not need any modifications at this time.

Mary called me. I told her about the new phone. She said she had just gotten another new one because she had lost the other one. She asked what mine looked like.

"Grey," I said.

"Mine's grey, too," she said, "with a dragon."

"I don't have a dragon," I said, thinking. In a flash I had decided that Mary had the latest version while I was stuck - for two years - with an out-of-date model that had been foisted on me. I had a pang of regret that I had not looked further into it. I imagined that Mary's phone had features that mine doesn't and I wanted more. Keep in mind that I didn't actually know that this was the case.

The point of this story is that sometimes I fall into maximizer mode. I had a phone that did what I wanted. Even better than I expected, actually. Yet I started to feel bad about my choice when I compared it to Mary's. And it may well be that the only thing my phone doesn't have that hers does is a dragon. I don't care about dragons.

This book goes well beyond such ruminations. I expect I will write more about it later. What I am finding especially interesting is that I had already come to a lot of the conclusions in it and that I already behave in a manner that is appropriate when faced with choices. With the occasional slip.


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