When to Satisfice and When to Dig Deeper

In Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes, author Maria Konnikova mentions the dangers of satisficing for investigation and decision-making. Even though satisficing sounds like a made-up word, it is a concept that has actually been around since the 1950's. Here is the definition Konnikova supplies, in the context of the great detective and those who would do lesser work.

[O]nce we reach an estimate that sounds satisfactory to us, we stop thinking and consider the problem resolved. We’ve successfully captured the required point of view. That tendency is known as satisficing, a blend of sufficing and satisfying: a response bias that errs on the egocentric side of plausible answers to a given question. As soon as we find an answer that satisfies, we stop looking, whether or not the answer is ideal or even remotely accurate.

It’s like the old saying, "I found it in the last place I looked."

Of course you did. You stopped looking after that.

But in detective work, it seems, satisficing is a negative, a mental shortcut that will keep the innocent in jail and the guilty free to roam.

This isn't the only time that satisficing could hurt. We don't want our doctors, car mechanics, or safety inspectors going with a "good enough" attitude, either.

Anyone who makes inspections must be wary of satsificing, less the first apparent symptom becomes the entire diagnosis. The "last place you look" could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In Defense of Satisficing

Contrast this warning of satisficing with author Barry Schwartz's ringing endorsement in The Paradox of Choice:

The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. To satisfice is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better. A satisficer has criteria and standards. She searches until she finds an item that meets those standards, and at that point, she stops. As soon as she finds a sweater that meets her standard of fit, quality, and price in the very first store she enters, she buys it—end of story. She is not concerned about better sweaters or better bargains just around the corner. … To a maximizer, satisficers appear to be willing to settle for mediocrity, but that is not true. A satisficer may be just as discriminating as a maximizer. The difference between the two types is that the satisficer is content with the merely excellent as opposed to the absolute best.

Though the choice of maximizer / satisficer initally seems likes a fixed either / or scenario, Schwartz admits that it's more of a continuum. We're edging towards one option or the other all the time.

Stepping back for a moment, Schwartz's maximizer would be just as just as damaging as Konnikova's satisficer. The maximizer who can never be confident that he has diagnosed a situation correctly will go on searching forever.

The world simply doesn't have time for that.

When to Satisfice

What both Konnikova and Schwartz advocate -- from opposite sides of the discussion -- is to find that "just right" approach. Not too much. Not too little.

But just right will vary from case to case.

In simple decisions, when any solution will work, save yourself the decision fatigue and just pick something.

In more complex decisions and diagnoses, take your time.

Pixar has become a bastion of decision-making since the first Toy Story, and they still struggle with the process. Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter has often been quoted as saying that, "our films don't get finished, they just get released."

At some point, you'll have to release your decisions -- even the hard ones. Seek counsel when it's truly needed, but be confident enough to release the smaller decisions more quickly.

The real trick to understanding when to satisfice is to figure out (before you get into the decision-making process) which choices should be easy for you.

Take time to make a list of your priorities and come up with ways that you can satisfice in lesser areas. In doing so, you can truly maximize your time, energy, and effectiveness on the things that actually matter in your life.

photo credit: thereeljames via photopin cc

WorkflowMichael Roberts