December 20, 2011
Maximizers And Satisficers
Do you put a lot of effort into making decisions and still feel dissatisfied afterward?
You're in search of a new coffee maker, and the simple quest becomes, well, an ordeal. After doing copious amounts of research and reading dozens of consumer reviews, you finally make a purchase, only to wonder: "Was this the right choice? Could I do better? What is the return policy?"
Reality check: Is this you?
If so, new research from Florida State University may shed some light on your inability to make a decision that you'll be happy with.
Joyce Ehrlinger, an assistant professor of psychology, has long been fascinated with individuals identified among psychologists as "maximizers." Maximizers tend to obsess over decisions — big or small — and then fret about their choices later. "Satisficers," on the other hand, tend to make a decision and then live with it.
I maximize and then forget. I sometimes spend a lot of time analyzing choices before I make them. I subscribe to Consumer Reports on the web. I go looking for reviews and comments. Just spent an inordinate amount of time reading to choose books for a friend for Christmas presents for example. But once I've ordered stuff I forget about it. When I order online for myself and the stuff shows up a week later in many cases I have to open the box to find out what my final decisions were. Don't have enough mental space to dwell on my purchases beyond the point I made them. Got to think about work, blog posts, chores, conversations with friends, and other demands on my time.
BTW, companies that expire online shopping carts after a few hours (or even less) are losing out sales to me. I put stuff in the cart with some indecision, go to sleep, and then a day or two later return and ask "Do I really want that stuff?". It helps to let the mind get over the initial desire. Items in the shopping cart basically become finalists for a potential buy.
Do marriages of maximizers end up in divorce court more often?
"Because maximizers want to be certain they have made the right choice," the authors contend, "they are less likely to fully commit to a decision." And most likely, they are less happy in their everyday lives.
A related phenomenon: The overabundance of variable in present decisions. When I want to buy anything on Amazon, I have to decide among thousands of competitive products. It's exhausting, so I usually defer buying anything.
I realized I had a problem with this when I explained to a coworker why the paper clips I ordered were better than the cheap generic brand and explained problems that were brought up in the reviews. She looked at me and said, "You were on the internet reading reviews for paper clips?"
Use Amazon's wish list.
I currently have...(had to open a new tab to check!)...172 items sitting on the list. If I see an online mention of anything that sounds good (book, tool, whatever), I try to put it on the wish list. And usually Amazon does have it.
Then when it's time to consider buying something, I go to the list. (I also prune the list from time to time.) Once in a great, great while, an item on the list will go out of print or off the market and thereby "expire." But that's rare.
The wish list also serves a useful psychological purpose, assuming your resources aren't unbounded. You see a mention of some item, but don't want to spend on it just yet, so you stick it on the wish list and then you can relax. You've captured the essential info in one place, without having to track zillions of scraps of paper. And by putting the item into the wish list, you feel a small sense of satisfaction — but you haven't dinged the wallet (yet).
And when you prune the list (roughly twice a year), you discover many things that no longer seem important, so you save some money that way, too.
"Do marriages of maximizers end up in divorce court more often?"
It wouldn't surprise me if the answer is "yes." There's this romantic myth of the "soul mate" - the one person in the whole world that you're meant to find, marry and live happily ever after together. There are 7 billion people on Earth and over 300 million in the US. The idea that you must cull through all that to find your soul mate is absurd. I have been happily married for 28 years. To think she's the only woman in the world that would've made a good wife for me is idiotic. I'm not perfect. She's not perfect. Together, we're pretty damned good. If you're waiting for that one true soul mate, well, I hope you enjoy spending time with your cats.
Brings to mind the maxim "If you expect perfect or nothing, you'll get nothing every time."
For decisions big enough to worry about, I gather information informally for months, if not years. A lot of the variables that cloud the decision-making process tend to prioritize themselves, given enough time and a sufficiently detached approach in the early stages.
By the time I get actively involved in trying to make a decision the variables have settled down to a manageable number. I chose the HDTV I finally bought in a matter of minutes, but when I was first looking over the options the brand and model weren't even available. In retrospect -- especially after seeing my mother-in-law's new TV, which cost five times as much -- I do wish I'd held out for some features this one doesn't have, but danged if it isn't still a damn sweet TV for the ridiculously small price I paid for it.
I agonized for months over whether or not to vote for Obama. I'm still not sure. Should I have or should I not have. Man, being decisive is way too hard. If there were only some elements of his performance I could use to go by!
Had a retail business for many years and we had several (half a dozen) of these "maximizers" as regular customers and plenty more as occasional customers. It always amazed me that adults could spend an hour or more agonizing over a $20 purchase decision, and we knew that half the time the item was coming back anyway. Funny thing was, three of of maximizer regulars were psychiatrists.
I would also qualify as a maximizer, I guess, but I'm with you, I tend to maximize pre-sale, and forget post-sale. I almost think there needs to be a third category - perhaps information hoarder. I love to gather info through Amazon reviews, Consumer Reports, and bloggers, and then make my decisions based on the data. The information isn't paralyzing to me, it's empowering. What would be paralyzing would be trying to make a major purchase without enough info. How in the world did I ever buy appliances before the Internet?
I think that a major problem nowadays, from consumer standpoint, is the inherent dishonesty and obfuscation on the part of providers of goods and services. An extreme case of that is healthcare, which has already been discussed, but similar issues occur in other areas. How much does this thingie *really* cost? Is the seller overcharging and will I find a more honest one with more reasonable price? Or are they all overcharging simultaneously and nobody wants to sell for a decent price (I am looking at you, sellers of clothing, shoes and cookware, among others)? And even if price is ok, is it too shoddy and otherwise useless?
A properly functioning market economy is supposed to efficiently solve the information problem and provide lots of good choices for all tastes. Instead what we seem to often have is lots of uniformly bad choices and some hope of finding better ones with great effort - as if the consumer is supposed to duplicate the work of the Walmart purchasing department to get a decent deal. Walmart itself probably buys for cheap, but what they don't waste through small scale inefficiency like small retailers they apparently extract as a "rent" via excessive markups.
The distinction between Maximizers and Satisfiers isn't in the time and effort put into the decision, but whether or not they second-guess themselves afterwards. To put it bluntly, a Satisfier will be happy with a decision that isn't perfect, but is "good enough".
I've never been able to decide whether being decisive is too hard.
I also am a big Amazon wish list user. I find it really revealing to go look at stuff I put on it months or years ago. My reaction: Why did I ever want that? Makes me doubt more my present desires for various things. I've become a big fan of owning less stuff. The desire for stuff just fills up rooms.
I'm definitely an information hoarder. Or an information omnivore in Tyler Cowen's phrasing.
We've got far more information now than we had 10 or 20 years ago. Reputation is a useful tool. If you want a higher quality item you've got to go to a department store whose purchasing department has higher quality standard than WalMart. That's what Nordstrom is for among others. You can buy brand names and from higher quality stores.
But I think there's a correlation between before-sale analysis and after-sale second guessing. Granted, some of us stop worrying after the sale even after putting a lot of effort up-front. But others never stop analyzing and worrying about opportunity costs. Tortured souls for sure.