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Help Your Kids Avoid the Indecision Blues

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.

Many phones

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.

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10 Responses to Help Your Kids Avoid the Indecision Blues

  1. Vincent D. November 4, 2012 at 4:14 am #

    I’m so grateful for being easy going when it comes to decision making. I don’t fret the small stuff like ordering lunch. That must be incredibly debilitating to one’s life on every level. In a way it reminds me of someone with a social dysfunction about interacting with others in society or a fear of rejection so powerful, the person just becomes frozen with indecision. I could see this developing over time into a real problem. Especially for those who self-reinforce the effects that it becomes dangerously habitual in every little nuance of their life. How would such a person live? They would require some outside assistance just to “push” them along. Amazing social conditions we have developed. I think sometimes as our civilization becomes more advanced our progress socially becomes more awkward and even hindered.

    • Gunther November 7, 2012 at 5:55 am #

      @Vincent – Your closing statement sounds like the battle cry for the primitivist movment. Ever read any of John Zerzan’s books or essays on the subject of anarcho-primitivism and the rejection of technology as the fundamental source of human social evolution? Consider his essay:

      • Brigitte November 4, 2012 at 6:11 am #

        I think it would be an impossible matter convincing the “Apple HDTV generation” to do without their precious doohickeys and gizmo’s for an entire day, let alone a lifetime. Primitivism in all honesty sound’s very romantic, The notion of a return to something natural and embrace nature and what was more conducive to human socialization. This is what happens when the Woodstock visionaries put down the bong and complete their dissertations;)

        • CAMILA FLORENTINO November 4, 2012 at 8:03 am #

          Zerzan is actually quite enlightening. If you get a chance, please watch the documentary called, “Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers” It will alter your perception of what a civilized modern world entails, leaving you asking the right kinds of questions. Gunther mentioned this documentary to me and I finally watched it last month. Btw, I think Zerzan went to Stanford and became disenchanted with academics and never completed his dissertation at UCLA…

  2. Gunther November 5, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    As a self proclaimed “maximizer” I can testify to the accuracy of this article. It’s painstaking for me to make decisions, but it would be hard to change my process. Btw, next time I’m on line at a restaurant, if I notice the person directly in front of me procrastinating, I will think of Sam (or it may even just be me)!

    • Aloisia L November 5, 2012 at 6:54 am #

      True, but the person could also be REALLY hungry and is possibly savoring that moment of indecision, when everything is possible and nothing is unattainable. Similar to an all you can eat buffet.

    • PhilJ November 5, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Gunther, one of my sons is a maximizer and I see his pain as well. I know you say it would be hard to “change your process,” but are you going to try? Since Mike’s only 8, I’m going to start working with him to try not to be such a perfectionist when it comes to making decisions. It’s scary to think he could grow up with the burden of having to make the “optimal” decision for everything. Thoughts?

  3. CAMILA FLORENTINO November 5, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    This is actually very frightening if you are chronic. I dread being a mother one day, and my son or daughter becomes so indecisive in minor occurrences, that major life choices become absolutely paralyzing. In the military I read once that they teach soldiers to have no more then three options in any dire situation. This eliminates hesitation which could cause severe and negative consequences, such as a loss of life or mission failure. It really is mentally and emotionally training yourself to be more decisive, especially under pressure. I think people can be so chronically effected they do not realize it and they in fact justify it by making justifiable excuses. Oh, and I totally agree about the lost time caused by being in a perpetual state of waiting, analyzing every detail. Life is messy, just go for it people!

  4. Aloisia L November 6, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    I am thankfully a satisficer. I could never obsess over the minute details in life like that poor soul, Sam. Where would you even find the time to exist in such a state of blatant procrastination? …..even over such trivial matters as lunch. I can see the self reinforcement has a huge influence on sustaining this behavior. Unfortunately almost everything in human development and conditioning is accomplished through reinforcement. This is a great article. You nailed it! A+ I have this bookmarked and will pass it along to some rather “maxed-out” individuals at work.

  5. Brigitte November 7, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    I love how social science can classify human behavior and be so succinct and honest. As a maximizer, I can attest to having Sam-like indecision that negatively impacts my life on numerous levels. I live in New York City, so this only exacerbates matters. Perhaps us urbanites should consider a more serene and subdued environment? I would have thought this was largely predetermined like something natural or possibly genetic as well.

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