How did you pick where to eat the last time you had a craving for tacos? In the popular Netflix series Master of None, Dev Shah, a 30-year-old actor living in New York City, models one extreme approach: After deciding to get tacos with his friend Arnold, who opts for an “I’m good with whatever” approach, Dev spends 45 minutes frantically and meticulously searching the Internet for the best taco spot in New York. Dev finally selects a particular taco truck as the best option; upon arriving there, he grills the server about the most superior taco offered, only to discover that the taco truck is all out of tortillas. “What am I supposed to do now—go and eat the second-best taco?” Dev fumes.
Life today requires dozens of daily decisions, both small—like what taco to eat, what music to listen to, and what style of clothes to wear—and large—like who to date or marry and what education or career to pursue. Throughout much of history, such a vast array of options would have been unimaginable. Our ancient ancestors were lucky to locate enough food to survive and didn’t have the luxury of picking among hundreds of possible tacos. Historically, most people were presented with far fewer options for how to live their lives.
People vary tremendously in how they manage this overwhelming number of decisions. At one extreme are the Dev Shahs of the world. They are maximizers—people who carefully consider all of the potential options out there, struggle to make even relatively trivial decisions, and aim for the best in all of their decision making. For such people, the best taco in New York city is worthy of a 45-minute search. At the other end of the spectrum are satisficers. Satisficers do not feel that they always need to attain the best; they investigate fewer options and, not surprisingly, make decisions with greater ease than do maximizers. You can take a short version of a Maximization Scale here to find out where you roughly fall on this spectrum of decision making styles.
So, which decision making style yields better results? Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz first proposed that people differ in their maximizing tendencies 15 years ago. Research since then has made it clear that maximization often comes with a cost. Greater tendencies toward maximizing predict a lower sense of well-being over time. In college and in the workforce, maximizing is associated with less satisfaction with one’s major, job, and career. Taking a maximizing approach to romantic relationships seems to be an especially bad idea because it is linked with lower satisfaction and commitment in those relationships. In short, when we constantly focus on the best possible outcomes, we are more likely to end up feeling worse about what we’ve got. Just as Dev’s search for the perfect taco yielded no taco at all, an exhaustive search for the best often ends up being fruitless, and, well, exhausting.
Do these findings suggest that people ought to lower their standards when making decisions? Should we all just adopt an “I’m good with whatever approach” to picking a restaurant or radio station? How about for a career or romantic relationship? Dev struggles mightily to figure this out in his own life. After pursuing the best possible taco, he applies the same sort of approach to his relationship with his serious girlfriend Rachel, with whom he has been living for a year. He is not certain that she is the best possible option for him as a wife—she misses the mark as his one and only soul mate. Should he break up with Rachel because the relationship is not as good as it could be? How high should his standards be for something as fundamental as picking a person to marry?
I would argue that the research on maximizing suggests that the solution to decision making is not simply maintaining low standards or expectations. Making satisfying choices does not require routinely settling for any possible option. The evidence for my claim comes from research that breaks apart maximizing into its constituent parts.
As it has been traditionally measured, maximizing involves three components, two of which are problematic, and one of which seems to have some benefits. One of the harmful components is the exhaustive search for potential options for trivial decisions—for example, a tendency to check out other tv or radio stations even after you’ve already settled on a good-enough choice. Another component seems to be even more detrimental: the tendency to find simple daily choices, like picking a gift or clothes for yourself, to be painfully difficult. It is these two components that relate to less joy in life.
In contrast, the third component of maximizing—maintaining high standards for your decisions—is beneficial. Psychologists measure this component by getting people’s self-reports on items like, “No matter what I do, I have the highest standards for myself” and “I don’t like having to settle for ‘good enough.’” Maintaining high standards is associated with a more positive sense of self, greater job satisfaction, and even a slightly higher income.
A recent study found that people with higher standards for their decisions tend to save more money and are more devoted to benefitting the next generation, in part because they focus more on the future and can better wait for the things they most want. In general, people do better in life when they set high expectations for themselves and can delay gratification, so it is not surprising that maintaining high standards for decisions has some benefits. Maximizers’ problems arise not from their high standards, but from their inability to settle on an option without painful deliberation.
So what is a maximizer to do?
How can we maintain high standards for our lives while avoiding the pitfalls of maximizing? I have three research-based suggestions to offer.
First, some maximizers cope better with trivial decisions if they limit their ability to change their minds or if they constrain their choices in some other way. In a recent study, I presented college students with a hypothetical situation in which they could choose a poster to take home. They had to choose whether their selection would be changeable (meaning they could bring the poster back to exchange it later for another one) or permanent. Some maximizers noted that they would opt for the permanent decision because they knew that this would reduce their decision-making stress. One of the top maximizers in the sample reasoned, “If I have too many choices, I will take too much time and will have trouble deciding.” By making your decisions permanent or by limiting your options in other ways, you may be able to ease some of the burdens of decision making.
Second, maximizers may benefit from working on their decision making skills. Many maximizers lack strong decision-making skills and instead rely on others for help or procrastinate when they face decisions. For making significant life decisions, it is possible to learn better problem-solving skills with practice. When faced with a major life decision, maximizers can benefit from the simple act of generating a list of pros and cons for various options after gathering a reasonable amount of information. For many maximizers, this will require putting a stop to their internet searching and advice gathering at a point that feels too early. While uncomfortable, this is a good thing: It gets the decision-making ball rolling. Then, in weighing the pros and cons, it is important to consider your life goals and most significant values: Which option seems like the best fit for who you are as a person and for what you want from your life? And then the final step requires courageously making that choice, and recognizing simultaneously that it is impossible to make any decision with utter certainty and that that is ok.
Third, maximizers may find it useful to remind themselves that perfection is an elusive goal. Psychologists have found ways to help people reduce perfectionistic strivings. Pursuit of perfection, as it turns out, does far more harm than good. The same holds true for perfectionism in decision making: No decision is perfect because nearly all choices involve trade-offs. We often face tough life decisions where there are multiple good options and where there are fixes for any wrong choices we make. It is possible to maintain high standards for our lives without expecting perfection in our decisions. As Shakespeare noted, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” Put another way: we can delight in a truly delicious taco without concern about whether it is the best one out there.
Rebecca Shiner is a professor at Colgate University, where her focus is the intersection of personality, developmental and clinical psychology.