How to Be a Satisficer

Have you ever spent a lot of time agonizing over a restaurant menu, hoping to choose something truly exceptional--but when the food comes, you look over at your friend's entree with envy?

Or have you been in the grocery store looking indecisively at twenty-five different brands of sugary boxed cereal, wondering which one will lacerate the roof of your mouth the least?

Have you perused your favorite cookbooks, hoping to try a new dish, and had trouble deciding because too many things sound good to you?

One of the strangely counterintuitive truths of modern life is this: Having a lot of choices actually makes you less happy. Having a few choices is fine--but having forty choices is pure decision-making hell.

And this can be especially true with food. If you're looking at a menu with three or four choices on it, no problema. But take that menu up to 15 or 20 choices and let the agony set in.

With this issue in mind, I'd like to share with you a word first coined by Herbert Simon (the American political scientist and economist), and then popularized by Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice.


This word is a somewhat ungrammatical combination of the words "satisfy" and "suffice." And the concept, when I've applied it to decision-making and choosing from a menu of options, has made me a far less miserable person.

If you're haven't heard of satisficing before, let's spend a brief moment defining it. Satisficing can be applied in almost any area of life, but today I want to talk about it mainly in the context of food.

Consider two people, The Maximizer and The Satisficer, going out with a group of friends for dinner. They sit down and begin to peruse the menu.

The Maximizer wants to order the very best thing on the menu.

The Satisficer will order the first sufficiently satisfying thing he sees on the menu.

Let's think through what happens next:

The Satisficer quickly picks something, and ends his internal mental discussion about what to order almost instantly. He can now join the conversation and have a relaxing, enjoyable evening. Because the Satisficer didn't try to order the best thing on the menu, he is unlikely to be disappointed no matter what happens. He has no attachment to the outcome of what he chose; in fact he might be in for a pleasant surprise at how good his entree is.

Not so for the Maximizer. Because he wants to get the best thing on the menu, he has to consider practically every dish. His decision-making takes significantly more time and effort. Worse, after he's made his agonizing decision, he's likely to waste energy worrying that he actually didn't order the best thing on the menu. He might even look over at the Satisficer's entree and think to himself, "dammit, his looks better than mine!"

After all of this extra effort, he unfortunately suffers the worst irony of all: he will likely end up less happy with his choice.

When I finished reading Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, I remember thinking how much time I wasted over the past 30-plus years just trying to make up my mind. And it's only brought me more misery.

So consider applying a little satisficing the next time you're out in a restaurant. Think of it as the Eleventh Rule for the Modern Restaurant-Goer.

And then consider other ways to apply it in cooking. It should make menu preparation and recipe selection at home far easier and far less time-consuming. And certainly when you're choosing between brands or categories of food ("Hmmm... which of these 35 kinds of cheese/ice cream/chocolate/etc., should we have with dinner tonight?"), using the satisficing approach should save you a lot of stress and decision-making time.

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Amanda said...

That's fascinating... I consider myself to be neither a maximizer nor a satisficer.

I'm a thinker. What do I feel like eating today? It's not about getting the most for my menu choice... it's, "Do I want that?" Naa, I don't feel like a salad today... feeling seafoodish... I think shrimp... then narrow down from there depending on ingredients/descriptions.

I can always come back and try something else, right? I'm always happy with my choices.

And as for what to cook... there's always tomorrow for another delicious dish!

Daniel said...

Hi Mrs. W:
I like your attitude! I could use some of that. :)


Daniel Schneider said...

Mrs. W still kinda sounds like a maximizer. It's not necessarily about getting the most or best, but satisfying one's desires, and that process would include analyzing one's desires.

But there must be different degrees of maximization. If you took it too far, you'd become so lost in everyday decision-making you'd wind up in a mental institution. And if you put no thought into it at all you might too often get something you hated. So there must be some normal middle ground that most people end up in.

oilandgarlic said...

I think I'm too much of a maximizer when it comes to food. I'm often the last person at the table to decide on my order, especially if it's my first visit to a restaurant and everything sounds so good.

I can decide quickly on the type of food (mexican, sushi, etc..) but once I'm there, I'm definitely paralyzed by choices. I am usually happy with my choice though!