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