Satisficers > Maximizers

People who write about tech seem to be obsessed with maximizing — attempting to find and get the best, always.

There is The Wirecutter, a website that is dedicated to find the best in everything tech (and some more).

Ben Brooks wrote about his obsession with the best a while back:

[…] it’s something that is an ongoing pursuit in my life: to get the best X that I can get. […] It really is the little things that count, because if you improve enough of the little things (and the big things don’t suck) then pretty soon you are going to have a lot of great things going for you and thus you will be happier. This is the reason I often write about recurring topics on this site — it’s a documentation of my pursuit to find the perfect thing for me.

More recently, Dustin Curtis’s eponymous declaration of his obsession with the best has been making the rounds in the Appleverse:

[…] trust me: the time it takes to find the best of something is completely worth it. It’s better to have a few fantastic things designed for you than to have many untrustworthy things poorly designed to please everyone.

Marco Arment echoes the sentiment:

This is why I research and review everyday objects like light bulbs: I have no patience for poorly working, poorly designed, or low-quality products.

Patrick Rhone agrees too:

This is something I believe in strongly. The reason is simple, choosing the best is a final choice. A final choice means I never have to spend the mental energy on that choice again.

These quotes all converge on two themes.

  1. Best or Bust. If you are not getting the best, then you are getting something untrustworthy, poor, or low-quality.
  2. Bestness = Happiness. If you do try to find and get the best, even at the cost of spending a great deal of time and money, you’ll be happier in the end.

Both are false.

Best or Bust is simply a false dichotomy. In most instances, there is middle ground between what is the best and what is untrustworthy, poor, or low-quality. There is such a thing as being good enough — being above some acceptability threshold relevant to one’s needs and wants. Often, the second best in many categories are good enough. iPad 4 is the best, but iPad 3 is good enough.

Unlike maximizers, satisficers do not always attempt to find and get the best. Satisficing is about attempting to find and get what is good enough.

As the Wikipedia entry on satisficing recounts, Herbert Simon argued in 1956 (!!!) that, given our cognitive limitations, rationally we should be satisficers rather than maximizers:

He 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 [that is, satisficing] takes into account these limitations.

In other words, even if you attempt to find and get the best, in an uncertain world you often won’t succeed. To say that the world of tech is rather uncertain is a serious understatement. Even if you researched endlessly and settled on the iPad 3 as the best tablet your money can buy, six months later that choice probably wouldn’t look so optimal after all.

Given human cognitive limitations, Bestness = Happiness turns out to be false too. More from Wikipedia:

Maximizers tend to use a more exhaustive approach to their decision-making process: they seek and evaluate more options than satisficers do to achieve greater satisfaction. However, whereas satisficers tend to be relatively pleased with their decisions, maximizers tend to be less happy with their decision outcomes. This is thought to be due to limited cognitive resources people have when their options are vast, forcing maximizers to not make an optimal choice. Because maximization is unrealistic and usually impossible in everyday life, maximizers often feel regretful in their post-choice evaluation.

In other words, you might aim for more happiness with maximization, but you won’t actually have more happiness. If anything, the attempts to find and get the best make you less happy in the end. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, satisficing is the way to maximize happiness.

Once we recognize our own cognitive limitations, it’s obviously more rational to settle for good enough than to keep searching for and trying to buy the best. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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