Let’s say you’re on a road trip and you get really hungry. It’s been a long day. You’re exhausted. And you don’t have a lot of cash (or time) to spare.
You decide to pull over to the closest gas station and find a sandwich, chips, and drinks. It costs less than $15, and within a few minutes, you’re back on the road without any hunger pangs.
Here’s another situation. You are invited to be someone’s date to a wedding, but it’s tomorrow! You open your closet, and decide to pick out the first dress that you see.
What do these two scenarios have in common? They both involve making a decision using a process called satisficing. If you find yourself having trouble making decisions, satisficing can help you save time, reduce anxiety, and solve whatever problem is at hand.
What Is Satisficing?
You might have never heard of satisficing before, but it’s certainly no secret. You’ve probably been through this process before without having a name for it!
Satisficing is the process of choosing a solution because it’s satisfactory, not because it will bring about optimal results. The term is a combination of “satisfactory” and “sufficing.” It was first introduced to decision-making theories in 1956 by an economist and psychologist named Herbert Simon. Simon is also the psychologist behind the theory of bounded rationality.
The theory of bounded rationality suggests that humans are more likely to make decisions based on the time constraints they have and the information they already have (or can easily access.) Although you may make a better decision by collecting all of the information and weighing all of the pros and cons, we don’t always have these luxuries. When we don’t have all of the time, money, and knowledge to make the absolute “best” decision, we often satisfice or find a solution “that will do.”
The satisficing examples I shared earlier may not have been done on purpose. You may not have chosen the gas station chips or the first dress you saw because you wanted to satisfice. But you knew that you had limited time and energy, so you went with a decision that simply fit your requirements.
Optimal Isn’t Always Optimal
What if you didn’t want to be satisfice on your road trip? What if you felt that you had the choice between the gas station sandwich, a restaurant next door, and the grocery store down the street? Or you had three gas stations lined up in a row, all with food that would fuel you on your road trip?
Well, now you have to make the decision of what decision is optimal. Will the food at the restaurant help you stay slim on your road trip? Is the gas station food too fattening? Will you end up waiting too long for the food at the restaurant and fall behind on your trip? How much money is too much to spend on this dinner? What if the grocery store doesn’t have everything you need…?
When you search for the optimal solution (aka “maximizing,”) you have a lot more to consider. What meal is the most satisfying, cost-effective, fastest? What are you willing to sacrifice: breaking your diet or waiting an hour for your food to come? Simply going through these questions and debating with yourself may take more time than its worth.
Plus, “maximizing” can only lead to one, optimal answer. That assumes that all of the other choices are less optimal. People who maximize rather than satisfice are more likely to second-guess their choices and continue to debate the merits of each choice. The ironic thing about maximizing is that when you aim to get the most out of your choice, you lose a lot. You lose time. You might lose money, because time is money. You lose the guarantee that your choice will suffice, because even if your requirements are met, maximizing is about choosing “the best.”
Is it really worth the time and worry to make the best decision, when a wider range of decisions will be satisfactory?
What Is “Satisfactory?”
There are plenty of people that prefer satisficing over maximizing. They are happy to make quicker decisions with less guilt. But “satisficing” doesn’t look the same for everyone.
Let’s go back to that wedding dress example. You have a wedding to attend, and you need to wear an outfit at the wedding.
In order to satisfice, you have to understand your needs.
For some people, those needs are to simply be covered with a piece of clothing. Even if the dress is wrinkly, or cheaply made, it’s still a dress. That’s enough.
For others, “satisfactory” looks like a dress that fits the occasion of a wedding. A white dress would not be satisfactory, for example, because some cultures and social circles believe that it is inappropriate to wear white to a wedding that’s not your own.
For other people, “satisfactory” looks like a dress that is flattering, well-made, and makes them appear to have a lot of money.
If you asked 10 different people to “satisfice” while looking through a closet to find a wedding outfit, each person may choose a different outfit. But the results are the same. Each person is satisfied with their choice, and not spending a lot of time possibly regretting their decision.
How to Satisfice
The next time you find yourself mulling over a decision, ask yourself if satisficing will help you save time and feel better about your choice.
Take a look at your requirements, not your options. What will satisfy you? What will suffice?
Once you’ve understood your requirements, take a small amount of time to find a solution. If this solution satisfices, don’t search any further! Make your decision, enjoy your satisfaction, and spend your saved time on other decisions.
Satisficing doesn’t always result in a split-second decision. If solutions are scarce and your requirements are high, you’re still going to have to spend some amount of time making your decision. But once you do make your decision, you can move on with the knowledge that your needs will be met and that you’ve saved time doing so.
Now get satisficing!