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Confessions of a Former Maximizer

written by Nicholas Hall 6 July 2007

Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Articles by Nicholas are here.

(To see a video version of this article, scroll down to the post script.)

It was nuts. I had looked at 50 apartments over two weeks before I made my decision. I was still not entirely satisfied with my choice! I was strung out and anxious the whole time that I was between abodes. What a mess.

Paradox of Choice coverThen I became inspired by the instruction I received from Barry Schwartz. I sat wide-eyed, probably with my mouth hanging open, as if I had received manna. No one had ever put it to me this way before. “Maximizing can damage your happiness and cause you depression.”

What?? Why hadn’t anyone told me this before?! I needed this badly, and luckily, I was in the right place at the right time. Barry’s emphatic explanations of his theories in class focused my attention on my habitual pattern of eternal, incessant decision deliberation or, as he calls it, maximizing. Deep down I always thought that I was making the most of the choices available, but I never even recognized that doing so damaged my happiness (and self-efficacy) so radically.

Maximizers and Satisficers 

Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, is interested in how people make decisions. His book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, is about how all the choices we have can really be overwhelming. We are made to believe in our society that the more choices we have, the better.

Not so, says Schwartz. (And if you ever need to test this theory out for yourself, try shopping for a laptop computer or cell phone sometime. It’s maddening!) He also describes two extremes of individuals and how they make decisions: maximizers and satisficers. Most people lie somewhere between the two.

A maximizer is someone that would compare absolutely everything he could before making what was intended to be the “perfect” choice.

The satisificer is someone who makes quick choices fairly easily and is pretty happy with them.

I had never been exposed to such a clear and direct statement that maximizing is a problem for people, and why it is such a problem. From his lectures, I decided that I needed a big change, and fashioned my own positive intervention to turn myself from a grade-A maximizer into more of a satisficer. So, if you find yourself to be suffering from the perfection plague, take notes.

A Method for Making Decisions

  1. First, I give myself a time limit of 30 to 60 seconds to make most decisions in my life. This way, I avoid the anxiety and nervous tension involved with having to make the right choice by taking away the time normally used to make a decision. I must rely on my intuition, that unconscious decision making process we all have, to make these decisions.
  2. Second, once I make the choice, I focus my attention on the benefits of the choice – the positive aspects of it. Being aware of my emotional state during decision making can be painful enough (precisely because decisions are so painful for me), but focusing my attention even stronger on my behavior enough to change it proved the challenging part of this intervention. Time is the most precious resource we have, and it is not renewable. I look at this intervention as giving myself more time in my life to enjoy the fruits of my decisions, rather than having no time left in which to worry whether or not the decision I just made is the “right” one.

It was my intention to make myself less anxious and more content with this intervention, as well as to realize that satisficing can cause me to be happier, more satisfied, less depressed, and essentially flourish with health and positive growth. It was an intervention in that I have to be aware when I am making a decision at first, and then use my will to refocus my attention on two things, time and benefits. It acts as a break in the consciousness of behavior – changing the usual habitual pattern through direct cognitive education.

When I told Barry of using this intervention, he told me “accomplishing your objective [of becoming a satisficer] will not be easy. Old habits die hard, and in the short run it will be a challenge to make peace with satisficing and not think about ‘the one that got away.’”

His words, while a warning of difficulty ahead for me, ring with hope, and that is what I have to hold on to.


Post Script:

You can see me and Barry Schwartz, along with Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania, in a short piece on this topic produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Happy viewing!

Via Windows Media Player

Via Real Player

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.

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Doug Turner 6 July 2007 - 8:16 am

Nick – Great piece. I wish we could do a little video for all the articles people submit – your video really drives the point home. You have raised the bar! As I read (and watched) your article it occurred to me that maximizers also seem to spend more time looking back on their decisions with regret rather than looking ahead with anticipation – sort of a “choice response style” with echoes of explanatory style.
All the best and Happy Deciding! Doug

Caroline Miller 6 July 2007 - 9:15 pm

Hi Nick!
Great piece! I sure hope you finally got a mattress after all that, seeing as using a twenty-year-old mattress may not be in your best interests at this point.

I love the idea of giving yourself time limits — like two minutes to answer an email — because you can avoid the crisis of writing the “perfect” email if you just decide that good enough works. I think you and I talked about that.

Great post — and keep it up!

Dave Shearon 6 July 2007 - 9:37 pm

Great post, Nick. I love the way your positive orientation toward change rings through.

I just watched a great example of the power of satisficing. Teresa, her sister, and I helped my older son move into a house in Louisville earlier this week. He was out of town on a trip planned before he ever signed the contract, so we were there a day before him. As we got to looking at the place (T had seen it, but it was the first time for me and her sister), we decided some painting needed doing. The living room was fuscia, the dining room some shade of green, and the kitchen had bright yellow walls and dark green trim — John Deere colors. This didn’t grab us, plus it just needed freshening up. So, after a quick call to get the older son’s permission, T and her sister were off to Home Depot.

Here’s where the satisficing came in. Because of time pressure, they picked a paint color in 10 minutes. The next day (after we’d painted four rooms!), they also picked a new trim color for the bathroom. Finally, they talked with the boy about what kind of drapes he wanted, picked the hardware and fabric and got those up. It was like an episode of “While You Were Out”! And they, and he, loved the result! Is it possible there was a better choice out there? Not even crossing our minds. Didn’t think about it, didn’t dither, and have no regrets. In this case, good enough feels great. Go ye and satisfice!

Angus 7 July 2007 - 2:53 am

Great piece Nick -and really good video! I love the human way it all comes through – especially that living the good life takes daily practice.

The video is just terrific and I am going to point my family and friends towards it, could save me a fortune! You have great style Nick.
Best aye

Marina Modlin 22 January 2009 - 3:52 pm

I LOVE the two-step approach, and will begin applying it immediately!

Forget about cell phones, with all the options out there, and the [old] desire to maximize, I can barely choose a new toothbrush…


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