Friday, 3 March 2006

Are you a grumpy maximiser or a happy satisficer?

From finding a TV channel to picking a restaurant, are you one of those people – a maximiser – who always has to perform an exhaustive check of all the available choices to make sure you pick the best? Or are you are a satisficer – someone who searches only for as long as it takes to find something adequate? If you’re a maximiser, take heed – you might end up with something better, but your pains will make you unhappy in the process. At least that’s what Barry Schwartz and colleagues found happens when it comes to job hunting.

Five hundred and forty-eight graduating students from 11 universities were categorised as maximisers or satisficers based on their answers to questions like “When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to”.

When questioned again the following summer, the maximisers had found jobs that paid 20 per cent more on average than the satisficers’ jobs, but they were less satisfied with the outcome of their job search, and were more pessimistic, stressed, tired, anxious, worried, overwhelmed and depressed.

“We suggest that maximisers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations”, the researchers said. Indeed, the researchers found that maximisers were more likely to report fantasising about jobs they hadn’t applied for and wishing they had pursued even more jobs than they did.

“Even when they get what they want, maximisers may not always want what they get”, the researchers concluded. “Individual decision-makers and policymakers are thus confronted by a dilemma: What should people do when ‘doing better’ makes them feel worse?”.
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Iyengar, S.S., Wells, R.E. & Schwartz, B. (2006). Doing better but feeling worse. Looking for the ‘best’ job undermines satisfaction. Psychological Science, 17, 143-149.

Link to abstract of another recent study showing it's not always best to think too hard about decisions. BBC coverage here.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.