Maximizers vs. Satisficers: Why It’s Tough to Decide

First published February 18, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In last week’s column, I introduced the study from Wesleyan University about how decisiveness played out for a group of 54 university students as they chose their courses.  The student’s eye movements were tracked as they looked at a course comparison matrix.

Weighing all the Options vs Saying No

In the previous column, I talked about two different strategies: the compensatory one, where we weigh all the options, and the non-compensatory one, where we start eliminating candidates based on the criterion most important to us. Indecisive people tend to start with the compensatory strategy and decisive people go right for the linear approach.  I also talked about Barry Schwartz’s theory (in his book “The Paradox of Choice”) that indecisiveness can lead to a lot of anxiety and stress.

The biggest factor for indecisive people seems to be a fear of lost opportunity. They hate to turn away from any option for fear that something truly valuable lies down that path. Again, this is territory well explored in Tversky and Kahnemann’s famous Prospect Theory.

The Curse of the Maximizer

Part of the problem is perfectionism, identified by Schwartz as a strong corollary to anxiety caused by impending decisions. The Wesleyan research cites previous work that shows indecisive people tend to want a lot more information at hand before making any decisions. And, once they’ve gone to the trouble to gather that information, they feel compelled to use it. Not only do they use it, they try to use it all at once.

The Wesleyan eye tracking showed that the more indecisive participants went back and forth between the five different course attributes fairly evenly, apparently trying to weigh them all at the same time.  Not only that, they spent more time staring at the blank parts of the page. This indicated that they were trying to crunch the data, literally staring into space.  The maximizing approach to decision-making places a high cognitive load on the brain. The brain has to juggle a lot more information to try to come to an optimal decision.

Decisive people embrace the promise of “good enough,” known as satisficing. They are less afraid to eliminate options for consideration because the remaining choices are adequate (the word satisficing is a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice”) to meet their requirements. They are quicker to turn away from lost opportunity. For them, decision-making is much easier. Rather than trying to juggle multiple attributes, they go sequentially down the list, starting with the attribute that is most important to them.

In the case of this study, this became clear in looking at the spread of fixations spread amongst the five attributes: time of the class, the instructor, the work load, the person’s own goals and the level of interest. For decisive people, the most important thing was the time of class. This makes sense. If you don’t have the time available, why even consider what the course has to offer? If the time didn’t work, the decisive group eliminated it from consideration. They then moved onto the instructor, the next most important criterion. And so on down the list.

Tick…Tick…Tick…

Another interesting finding was that even though indecisive people start by trying to weigh all the options to look for the optimal solution, if the clock is ticking, they often become overwhelmed by the decision and shift to a non-compensatory strategy by starting to eliminate candidates for consideration. The difference is that for the indecisive maximizers, this feels like surrender, or, at best, a compromise. For the decisive satisficers, it’s simply the way they operate. If the indecisive people are given the choice between delaying the decision and being forced to eliminate promising alternatives, they’ll choose to delay.

This sets up a fascinating question for search engine behavior: do satisficers search differently than maximizers? I suspect so. We’ll dive deeper into this question next week.

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