Kids are faced with hundreds of choices each day. What should I wear today? Which way should I walk to school? What condiment should I put on my sandwich? Who should I play with? What should I be when I grow up? Decisiveness is a vital life skill – one you can teach your children.
In the short clip above, Sam has a hard time deciding what to order at Bubba Burger. He’s comparing and contrasting each choice; he even envisions making a decision (getting a burger) and then anticipates regretting that choice. Anticipatory regret is a hallmark of those who are indecisive, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
Once in a while, everyone suffers from the indecision blues or the psychological burden of making the optimal choice. This is perfectly normal. It’s when your child’s decision making consistently becomes a painful, drawn-out process that there is cause for concern. Recurring indecision is a debilitating trait. In the long-term, it can negatively affect well-being, life satisfaction, and success in relationships and work. So how do you teach your child to be an effective decision maker? Raise a satisficer, not a maximizer.
Maximizers versus Satisficers
The terms “maximizer” and “satisficer” were coined in the 1950s by researchers studying decision-making strategies. Simply defined, maximizers want to maximize or make the optimal choice regarding any decision while satisficers are satisfied with what they consider to be good enough. Most people fall into one category or the other.
It’s pretty easy to recognize a maximizer (you might be one yourself)! When it comes to making a decision, maximizers research and evaluate as many options as possible. When a maximizer has to buy a new phone, for example, they find a store and diligently obsess over the specifications of every phone and every plan. They ask the sales rep to explain the benefits and pitfalls of each. They go home and rinse and repeat these steps online.
Thereafter, the maximizer might spend weeks in different stores, poring over review sites, asking friends and family for their opinion… you get the picture. In the end, an awesome spreadsheet emerges to help extract the absolute maximum value for the pending choice. This is when the real fun begins.
Before making the purchase, the maximizer envisions choosing one of the options and frets over regretting that option. What if I get the new iPhone, but then a new, better Blackberry comes out? That would kill me! (This is anticipatory regret.) Under duress and still dubious, the maximizer finally decides.
After making the purchase, the maximizer constantly wonders if the phone they chose is the right one. (This is post-decision regret.) They dwell in the regret of all the choices they didn’t make. Two months later when a better phone is released, the maximizer fantasizes about upgrading. In fact, maximizers tend to hold onto receipts, so going through the process again is usually an option. Now, does this process seem optimal?
A satisficer, on the other hand, thinks about what kind of phone they need. They might surf the web or take a short trip to the store to check out what’s out there. The satisficer then evaluates a few possibilities which meet their requirements and chooses from the pool of options. There is little comparing and contrasting afterward, and the satisficer ends up being pretty happy with the decision.
Those who lean toward maximizing decisions find the methods of a satisficer flimsy. In fact, it’s been said the word satisficer is a combination of the words “satisfying” and “sacrificing.” Maximizers wonder why any sacrifice needs to be made when it comes to decisions. The irony is that maximizers tend to ignore the biggest sacrifices they make: the cost of their time, effort, and emotional pain invoked by pre- and post-purchase regret.
While maximizers do not intend to make their lives more difficult, research shows maximizing or self-imposed pressure of having to make perfect decisions results in lower life satisfaction. In the end, satisficing may in fact be the optimal decision-making strategy.
How do you raise a satisficer?
Be aware. Pay attention to how your child makes decisions. Identify their tendencies of maximizing or satisficing. Awareness is the first step in helping a child make more efficient and satisfying decisions.
Choose from 3 options. In Barry Schwartz’s book Paradox of Choice, he states more is not necessarily better when it comes to choices. In fact, the greater the number of options, the greater the tendency to maximize a decision. When faced with a large or complicated array of choices, help your child narrow it down to 3 options from the get-go.
Express gratitude for choices already made. Reduce pre- and post-purchase regret by teaching your child to express gratitude for recent choices they’ve made. Have them write down a few good things they appreciate about their choices-set aside a few minutes each night for gratitude time.
Remember, satisficing is a skill which will serve your child in every domain of their life. As Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of the Paradox of Choice, says, “The most important thing is to learn that good enough is almost always good enough.”
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: why more is less. New York: Ecco.
Simon, H. A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review, 63 (2), 129-138.