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Maximizing versus satisficing

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The distinction between maximizing and satisficing was introduced by Simon (1955, 1956, 1957). These constructs represent two different strategies to choose an option from a set of possible alternatives. Individuals who maximize consider all possibilities comprehensively and strive to select the best option. These individuals, for example, frequently switch to other radio or TV stations, even when reasonably satisfied with the current program, to ensure they are exposed to the best alternative. Likewise, these individuals will scan the entire menu at a restaurant, often several times, to choose the best meal.

Individuals who satisfice, however, merely seeks an alterative that exceeds some criterion of acceptability. Once they identify an acceptable option, they discontinie their search. For example, these individuals will commit to a TV program, when reasonably satisfied, even if they have not considered all the alternatives. These individuals, called satisficers, do not pursue the goal to optimize every decision.



Maximizers pursue the goal to optimize every decision (Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, & Lehman, 2002). If many different options are available, this goal is difficult to fulfil. The failure to achieve goals promotes dissatisfaction, even if their choices are reasonable.

Hence, satisficing is more likely than maximizing to be associated with satisfaction and wellbeing. For example, in one study (Iyengar, Wells, & Schwartz, 2006), individuals who had recently completed university or college were encouraged to search for jobs through a career service. Several months later, maximizers, as gauged by the scale developed by Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, and Lehman (2002), were less inclined to be satisfied with their choice. In addition, maxmizers are more inclined to experience regret and depression rather than life satisfaction and optimism (Schwartz et al., 2002).


Maximizing, although inversely related to wellbeing, is sometimes positively related to performance. For example, in the study on recent graduates, conducted by Iyengar, Wells, and Schwartz (2006), maximizers were more likely to have secured jobs with an elevated, rather than modest, salary than were satisficers. Regardless, maximizers were less satisfied with their job.


Maximizers, as gauged by the scale developed by Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, and Lehman (2002), are more inclined to compare their decisions with the choices of other individuals. That is, as a consequence of their need to optimise their purchases and behaviour, they often compare their own products, status, ability, and so forth with the outcomes that other individuals generate. Hence, they are more likely to recognise instances in which another person has purchased superior goods or performed more effectively, ultimately promoting depression.

In addition, maximizers are more likely to demonstrate option fixation (Iyengar, Wells, & Schwartz, 2006): in which they fantasize about options that differ from the alternatives they are actually pursuing and wish they could pursue more options. Futhermore, they are more inclined to seek advice from experts, family, and friends.


To optimize their outcomes, maximizers need to identify, understand, and explore every possible option and alternative& otherwise, they fear they might experience regret if they select an option they later recognise is not ideal (Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, & Lehman, 2002). Accordingly, these individuals experience significant stress when many options are available, because the likelihood they could regret their decision rises.

Causes of maximzing versus satisficing

The context can affect whether or not participants will tend to maximize or satisfice. For example, Holbrook, Green, and Krosnick (2003) showed that respondents to surveys are more likely to demonstrate manifestations of satisficing when they engage in telephone interviews rather than face-to-face interviewers. Nevertheless, few studies have explored the antecedents to these strategies (but see Fu & Gray, 2006).

Biases towards freedom of choices

Botti and Hsee (2010) unearthed a bias that could increase the inclination of individuals to maximize rather than satisfice. In particular, they discovered that individuals underestimate the costs of choice. Specifically, when individuals are granted many choices, they recognize they might be more likely to uncover the best option. Nevertheless, they overlook the costs of these choices--such as the effort and time that is needed to assess the various alternatives as well as the likelihood of regret and disappointment.

To illustrate, in one study, participants were instructed to invest $10,000 of cash into a bank account. The accounts would return between 3% and 4%. Some participants were told they could pay $7 to receive information about the interest rates of three banks, randomly selected. They could then choose the bank account in they will invest this money. Other participants were told they could continue to pay $7 as many times as they like, each time receiving information about three banks, randomly selected. Finally, some participants were asked whether they would prefer the alternative in which they could pay $7 only once or could pay $7 as many times as they choose.

Interestingly, compared to participants who could pay $7 only once, participants who could pay $7 as many times as they choose tended to generate a lower return. These participants often squandered their money on seeking more alternatives. They underestimated the costs of requesting this information. Nevertheless, most participants maintained they would prefer the alternative in which they could pay $7 as many times as they choose. That is, because of a need for control, individuals prefer to be granted more choice and information, even if costly. Nevertheless, familiarity with the task curbed this bias.


Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, and Lehman (2002) developed a scale that assesses the extent to which individuals engage in behaviors that manifest a tendency to maximize. Participants specify the extent to which they agree or disagree with 13 statements, although some authors use only 11 of these items (e.g., Iyengar, Wells, & Schwartz, 2006). Typical items include:

  • "I never settle for second best"
  • "I treat relationships like clothing: I expect to try a lot on before I get the perfect fit"
  • "I often find it difficult to shop for a gift for a friend"
  • "When shopping, I have a hard time finding clothing that I really love".

    The remaining items relate to seeking the best channel while watching TV or listening to the radio, striving to uncover the best job or video, enjoying lists that rank items from best to worst, construcing many drafts when writing, and pursuing high standards. Cronbach's alpha is about .71.

    Overlapping but distinct concepts

    Maximizing seems to align closely with the assessment mode (Kruglanski, Thompson, Higgins, Atash, Pierro, Shah, & Spiegel, 2000)--a tendency to appraise each alternative courses of action methodically and meticulously. These individuals evaluate their plans, other people, as well as themselves carefully and thoroughly (see Regulatory mode).

    Practical suggestions

    To enhance wellbeing, individuals should, on some occasions, decide not to consider all of the options and alternatives. For example, at a restaurant, they should disregard one section of the menu. This approach is especially important if their decision is unlikely to affect their life significantly in the future.

    Related topics

    Choice overload

    Many studies indicate that, at least in some circumstances, too many choices can promote dissatisfaction, sometimes called the choice overload hypothesis (e.g., Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, & Todd, 2010). Specifically, when individuals need to choose between many, rather than a few, distinct alternatives, they might be less inclined to commit to a choice (e.g., Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), less satisfied with this choice (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000), and more likely to experience negative states, like regret (Schwartz, 2000).

    To illustrate, in one study, reported by Iyengar and Lepper (2000), a sample of jams was arranged on a table in a grocery store. Either 6 jams or 24 jams were presented. Participants received a coupon, in which they could purchase a jam with a $1 discount. More participants approached the table with 24 jams. However, after they approached, only 3% of individuals purchased an item if 24 jams appeared but 30% of individuals purchased an item if 6 jams appeared. In another study, participants who choose a chocolate from 30, rather than 6, alternatives were subsequently less satisfied with their choice (for similar results, see Shah & Wolford, 2007;; Reutskaja & Hogarth, 2010). Nevertheless, the number of alternatives that exceeds the optimum number of choices is not certain (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000).

    A variety of mechanisms can generate or amplify the choice overload hypothesis. First, when participants are presented with too many choices, their capacity to select the best alternative diminishes, sometimes evoking anxiety and other negative emotions (e.g., Schwartz, 2004). Second, when many choices are offered, participants dedicate more time to contemplating the various alternatives. They become more attached to these options, increasing the likelihood of regret. They also entertain more counterfactual thoughts, in which they reflect upon their life had they chosen another alternative (Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, & Todd, 2010). Third, when many choices are available, participants expect they will be more satisfied--an expectation that is not always fulfilled (Schwartz, 2000). Finally, if many alternatives are offered, participants are exposed to many undesirable options, demanding effort to differentiate.

    Nevertheless, several mechanisms may counter the choice overload hypothesis. First, when many choices are available, individuals might be more likely to uncover an option that fulfills their unique profile of needs (Anderson, 2006). Second, when subtle differences between the alternatives are highlighted, individuals assume the products must be elevated in quality. That is, they assume that precision is valued (Berger, Draganska, & Simonson, 2007). Finally, when many alternatives are offered, individuals can more readily ascertain the distribution of features, sometimes representing an important source of information.

    To reconcile and clarify this complexity, Scheibehenne, Greifeneder, and Todd (2010) undertook a meta-analysis. Data from 50 experiments, all of which examined the effect of choice size on consequences like satisfaction, were included.

    Overall, the effect size approached zero. Nevertheless, some of these studies showed that many choices curbed satisfaction or related measures. Other studies showed that many choices increased satisfaction. Thus, whether or not choice enhances satisfaction obviously depends on the context.

    Conceivably, abundant choice compromises satisfaction in specific instances only. This adverse effect of choice, for example, does not persist if the participants are familiar with the items (Mogilner, Tamar, & Iyengar 2008). Furthermore, this adverse effect of choice subsides if the items are arranged into categories (Mogilner, Tamar, & Iyengar 2008). Finally, this adverse effect of choice diminishes if the items differ on few, rather than many, attributes. In these instances, the decisions are not as difficult, and hence the detrimental impact of choices dissipates.

    Choice effects: Attitudes to government policies

    As Savani, Stephens, and Markus (2011) showed, when the concept of choice is salient, individuals tend to be inclined to reject government policies that constrain autonomy. For example, people become more likely to reject affirmative action.

    Specifically, Savani, Stephens, and Markus (2011) conducted a series of studies to assess these possibilities. In one study, participants watched a 6 minute video, depicting a male student, in his apartment, undertaking a series of everyday tasks such as eating chocolate, reading magazines, and opening mail. To increase the salience of choice, some participants were asked to press the space bar whenever they felt this person seemed to reach a choice. In the control group, participants were asked to press a bar whenever the person touched an object for the first time.

    Next, in the midst of other questions, participants were asked to indicate their attitudes towards affirmative action. For example, they specified the extent to which they agree or disagree that affirmation action could reduce productivity or fairness. In general, after the choice had become conspicuous, participants were more likely to reject affirmation action.

    The following studies were similar. These studies showed that choice increased the likelihood that participants rejected policies that limit independence and autonomy, such as restrictions on violent video games, prohibitions against vending machines at schools that sell unhealthy food, taxes on inefficient cars, bans on factory farming of animals, and strict requirements on home insulation. Conversely, choice increased the probability that participants embraced policies that increase autonomy, such as laws that permit marijuana use and laws that allow single parents to adopt children.

    The final set of studies indicated that salience of choice translates to limited empathy towards victims. That is, when choice is salient, individuals like to feel that people are responsible for their own lives. Deprived communities and victims of accidents are more likely to be blamed. This finding, however, was observed in America but not India.

    Conceivably, when choice is salient, the concept of individual agency or individuality is primed (see self construal theory). When this sense of agency is primed, the goals of individuals tend to revolve around personal achievement rather than community needs. They are also aware that restrictions to independence tend to impede these goals. They will, therefore, reject policies that curb this independence.

    Choice effects: Attitudes to inequality

    As Savani and Rattan (2012) highlight, when the concept of choice is salient, people also become more likely to tolerate, rather than reject, the rampant inequality in some nations such as America. Arguably, if choice is primed, people value autonomy. Consequently, they may be concerned that policies that are intended to curb inequality, such as steep taxes on the wealthy, may also impede autonomy. Furthermore, if choice is primed, people may ascribe inequality to the choices that wealthy and deprived communities have reached instead of other societal constraints& they perceive such inequality, therefore, as justifiable.

    Savani and Rattan (2012) conducted a series of studies that validate these premises. For example, in one study, participants watched a video of a person completing mundane activities, such as opening mail or reading a magazine. To prime choice, some participants were asked to press a button each time this person reached a choice. In the control condition, participants were asked to press a button each time this person touched another object. Next, participants received a series of statistics about the rampant inequality in their nation: America. They were asked to indicate the extent to which they are disturbed by these figures. If choice had been primed, participants were less disturbed by these statistics about inequality.

    The subsequent studies were similar, except other effects of choice were examined. For example, when choice was primed, participants were not as likely to feel that societal norms and practices impinge on wealth. They rejected statements like "Many rich people have become rich because there exists a society in which their property rights are protected". They also rejected policies that redistribute wealth but not government policies in general.

    Single option aversion

    Some people experience feelings of discomfort whenever they are not granted more than one alternative to choose. For example, if a store sells only one brand of cereal, consumers will experience these feelings of discomfort, and these feelings may diminish the likelihood they buy this product. Indeed, because of this phenomenon, individuals may be more inclined to purchase this product if other alternatives are available.

    These possibilities were proposed and substantiated by Mochon (2013). In one study, participants imagined they needed to purchase a DVD player. A Sony DVD player, a Philips DVD player, or both of these alternatives were then presented. Participants then indicated whether they would buy one of these players or defer their decision to seek other alternatives. As predicted, participants were more likely to buy the Sony DVD player if the Philips DVD player was also offered. A subsequent study replicated this finding with candy, even when the alternatives differed quite considerably from each other.

    In a third study, participants imagined they needed to purchase a DSLR camera. A Canon camera, Sony camera, or both cameras were presented. Again, participants then indicated whether they would buy one of these players or defer their decision to seek other alternatives. However, some participants were instead offered the two cameras but told to indicate which camera they prefer. Next, these individuals were asked whether they would purchase this camera or defer their choice. Interestingly, even when initially two brands were offered, but later participants needed to decide between one brand or deferring their decision, they were still less inclined to choose this product. This finding highlights that people feel discomfort whenever choosing between one option and deferral.

    A later study showed this pattern of observations vanishes whenever people cannot compare further options later. This study, therefore, implies the reluctance to choose a product that is presented alone is underpinned by the need to seek and compare additional alternatives.


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    Last Update: 6/6/2016