Are you the type of person who won’t settle for second best? When faced with a choice do you spend time working out the other possibilities to see if you’re making the right decision? If you are it’s just possible you’re a maximizer. It was the economist Herbert Simon who in 1956 coined the term maximizer to describe an approach to decision-making that prioritizes optimal solutions over adequate or make-do solutions. He contrasted maximizers with satisficers, the latter type being predisposed towards choices that are good enough to meet their needs. So what benefits come with being either a maximizer or a satisficer?
The benefits of maximizing are the investments in time, attention and energy to reach the best decision. It means taking longer to reach a decision and in some occupations the difference between a good decision and the best decision could be critical. Satisficers tend to work on the assumptions that the added investment of the maximizer doesn’t always lead to a better outcome and often won’t be enough to justify the extra resources required. Satisficers therefore accept they may miss out on the best decision outcome but are content that their goals can be accomplished by meeting standards deemed acceptable.
Both approaches have their advantages but in terms of stress generated there are arguably significant downsides to maximizing. First, examining all the possible options is tiring and this is time that could be spent doing other things. If after all the time it is later found that a better choice was available it leads to regret. Thirdly, the higher our expectations the greater the chances of disappointment. The maximizer is frequently troubled by thoughts that something has slipped through their fingers or they have missed a trick. When things do go wrong, as they almost certainly will, the maximizer comes out high on self-blame and criticism. Why didn’t they put in more effort, ask more questions, spend more time?
Studies suggest that maximizers often hold jobs that are higher status and better paid but the trade off is they suffer greater stress and anxiety. If things do go wrong they often have further to fall and have greater difficulty climbing back up. In order to reduce unnecessary stress it is useful to focus attention differently. For example, settle for choices that are good enough in more trivial areas or delegate the responsibility to another person. Once a decision is made stick to it rather than try to switch if something only slightly better comes along. Experiment with make-do choices and see how they feel and whether you notice much difference.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.