Is Satisficing Rational?

Background: A maximizer searches for the best option, a satisficer searches until they find a good option, then stops.

Five hundred and forty-eight graduating students from 11 universities were categorised as maximisers or satisficers based on their answers to questions like “When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to”.

When questioned again the following summer, the maximisers had found jobs that paid 20 per cent more on average than the satisficers’ jobs, but they were less satisfied with the outcome of their job search, and were more pessimistic, stressed, tired, anxious, worried, overwhelmed and depressed.

“We suggest that maximisers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations”, the researchers said. Indeed, the researchers found that maximisers were more likely to report fantasising about jobs they hadn’t applied for and wishing they had pursued even more jobs than they did.

[BPS Research Digest]

Tyler Cowen cautions: "by now you know the usual caveats for such research. Number one is whether the survey evidence measures true commitment to maximization, or whether it simply picks up grumps who are fussy and determined to portray a fussy image to the world.

I had always thought of the human penchant for satisficing as a negative, keeping us from finding the best solutions. But perhaps its a way to keep us sane in a world where arbitrary amounts of effort can be expended on squeezing the last drop of perfection out of pretty much anything we do.

There is some conflict between this idea and the fact that I personally achieve Flow by maximizing. That is, I so enjoy maximizing that when I have to do something boring, a focus on maximizing is what keeps me sane and entertained[1]. I don't think this is a sufficient counter-argument though.

First, I am unusual, and I think maximizing is stressful for many people. So for them, satisficing may well be the route to happiness. Second, what I enjoy most is maximizing with the downtime that comes when doing boring things - while driving, while feeding the baby, etc. This is a meta-maximization strategy, since working on maximizing when there is nothing else to do is basically free, hence efficient. But when you have other things to do, satisficing is a good heuristic for what to work on, because of the declining marginal utility of maximization. In fact, the shoulder where the utility curve starts to really drop is exactly at satisfaction, so its arguably not just a good heuristic but the right heuristic.

Given that behavioral economics has demonstrated the existence of such a shoulder (ie consider greater aversion to losses than gains, which creates a shoulder at zero), satisficing is a perfectly rational strategy to direct effort to where it has the greatest marginal utility. It's a fine heuristic for an agent with bounded rationality choosing where to direct its efforts.

It's worth noting that this theory suggests when this instinct will be wrong: if done naively, it is likely to fail on the things we do the most often, where a little extra gain goes a long way. So in those cases, its worth moderating your desire to satisfice by adding a dash of perfectionism.

[1] This is related to why I love to play games - they are specifically designed to be interesting structures for maximization search. Note this also explains why strategy-game-playing is connected to attributes (like intelligence) and professions (like computer scientist) that are associated with a focus on maximization.

Share this

Max, the Maximizer When

Max, the Maximizer
When should you stop searching for that elusive best and when should you just settle with satisfactory but not optimal choices? Are people who put more effort into the search really happier? Do they really enjoy better lives because of their tenacity? ...

Given that behavioral

Given that behavioral economics has demonstrated the existence of such a shoulder (ie consider greater aversion to losses than gains, which creates a shoulder at zero), satisficing is a perfectly rational strategy to direct effort to where it has the greatest marginal utility. It’s a fine heuristic for an agent with bounded rationality choosing where to direct its efforts.

You'll forgive me if this sounds a tad tautologous - "agents try to bound the use of their resources because they have bounded resources".

This is related to why I love to play games - they are specifically designed to be interesting structures for maximization search. Note this also explains why strategy-game-playing is connected to attributes (like intelligence) and professions (like computer scientist) that are associated with a focus on maximization.

I wouldn't say computer science focuses on maximization per se - for example, many computer scientists spend time proving that certain problems are NP-complete (hardly a "maximization" of anything!). Further, much of what is perceived as "perfectionism" comes from the nature of the task - digital computers are imperfect devices that often fail to work if even one bit is not correct. Yes, the desire for efficient algorithms is an important part of the process, but it doesn't occupy all of the profession's effort.

There's a semi-famous and

There's a semi-famous and probably false anectode of a girl inviting her economist boyfriend to meet her folks who ran a grocery store. Knowing that the boyfriend was an economists the parents tried to impress him (I know, usually it's the other way around, maybe I'm just flipping the characters, whatever...) by telling him about how well run their business was. "At our store we've managed to reduce shoplifting to less than half of one percent of our costs!". The boyfriend replied "Wow! That seems really inefficient!"

I think the same insight applies here with regard to what they're calling 'maximizers' and 'satisficers'.

Remember Opportunity Cost people.

Radek, I also recommend

Radek,

I also recommend Pireto and Occam.

There, I believe, is the foundation of "satisficing".

Don't make the perfect the

Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good....

OK, am I the only one who

OK, am I the only one who just completely didn't get the last three comments? :shock:

Patri: in short, you're a

Patri: in short, you're a geek.

Geeks optimize. It's an instinct bordering on the pathological. I can hardly walk down the street without pondering how I could shave three steps off my intended path or how the traffic system could be redesigned to reduce travel times.

Geeks optimize so instinctively that the truly wise geeks know that optimizing optimization itself often requires optimizing less (c.f. Knuth's famous quote). Another important principle is optimizing on the correct variable. Your observations about satisficing being a more maximal strategy than maximizing reflects both principles.

It’s worth noting that this theory suggests when this instinct will be wrong: if done naively, it is likely to fail on the things we do the most often, where a little extra gain goes a long way. So in those cases, its worth moderating your desire to satisfice by adding a dash of perfectionism.

I like this observation. Here's another: "Everything in moderation, including moderation itself."

I find it interesting that

I find it interesting that some people hear maximization and think of geeks, computer scientists, etc. My first thought was Olympic athletes. I heard a "motivational" speech from an Olympic Gold medallist who talked about dedicating 7 years of his life to shaving 0.1 seconds off his 200m backstroke. My reaction was pretty close to the the anecdote above: wow, that seems really stupid. But thousands of people dedicate their entire youth to goals like that. Think of everything you achieved between the ages of 6 and 26, then imagine trading pretty much all of it away for a chance to become guy number three in the world's fastest four-man bobsled.

Stefan, just for your

Stefan, just for your benefit...

Pireto - "80% of success comes with the first 20% of effort." See angryman's comment on the swimmer for the converse.

Occam - " given two equally predictive theories choose the simpler one, the one with fewer unneccesary assumptions."

Probligo, just for your

Probligo, just for your benefit...

I'm familiar with Vilfredo Pareto and the principle of Occam's Razor. Aside from mispelling Pareto's name, you just mentioned Occam's name and obliquely referred to Pareto's 80-20 rule without really saying how they are related to "the foundation of satisficing". Perhaps you think all satisficing is an example of one or both of these principles being applied? If so then it wouldn't just be "for my benefit" to explain what you really meant...

Satisficing is perfectly

Satisficing is perfectly rational even without bounded cognitive abilities. All you need to have is costly search. A standard conclusion of the economic theory of search is that a rational optimizer will adopt a reservation level of satisfaction and accept anything that meets or exceeds it. I had a post on this a while back:
http://agoraphilia.blogspot.com/2003/03/rationalizing-rationalityjulian-and.html

I think the conflict between

I think the conflict between satisficing and maximizing can also be one of time preference. The satisficer is looking for a job so that he'll be happy that he isn't still looking for a job next week. The maximizer wants a job he'll be happy with in a year and doesn't quite care that he'll feel bad next week.

Of course, this theory doesn't quite fit well with the example of whether people will continue flipping through the radio stations or not... unless the 10 second to 3 minute time preference differential is reflective of the 1 week vs one year time preference differential.