When “good enough” is great

Can we have too much choice? (Part 2)

In his book “The Paradox Of Choice“, the psychologist Barry Schwartz makes a convincing case for us often being faced with an overwhelming number of options when making decisions in the modern world. Consider buying a second hand car, something that I had to do about a year ago.

When I was looking to buy a second hand car, I used AutoTrader, the UK’s leading website for buying and selling second hand cars. Checking the AutoTrader website today, I see that it lists 87 different makes of car. Now some of these makes are pretty obscure; I’d not heard previously about Ascari, Ariel, Plymouth, Tiger or a number of the others; and there was often only one or a small number of cars available for these obscure brands. However, for 52 of these makes, AutoTrader is listing over 100 cars available to buy and almost all of those makes were ones of which I had heard.

Next, each of the popular makes usually has a large range of models. AutoTrader lists 30 models for Volkswagen, 25 for BMW, 33 for Audi, 44 for Ford, and so on.

Then of course, for any popular make and model, there are usually hundreds of cars available with various different options, such as: manual or automatic, engine size, fuel type, colour… and of course “optional extras” such as leather interior, sunroof, sat nav , etc.

Feeling overwhelmed yet?  I was.  Here are just 28 of the 408,904 second hand cars that AutoTrader has just told me are available to buy in the UK.

Blog 5 media AutoTrader

So how do people typically react when faced with so many options?

In “The Paradox Of Choice“, Barry Schwartz describes two types of people: maximizers and satisficers.

Maximizers are those people who are driven to find the best option available. Only the best is good enough for a maximizer. And to ensure that they find the best option, maximizers will want to compare all the available options. They may consider hundreds or even thousands of alternatives. They are likely to weigh up a large number of different variables and to try to make trade-offs between them. They may make extensive notes about the options that they’ve considered and how those options stack up against other options. At an extreme, they build complex, multivariate analyses in Excel, scoring each available option on multiple attributes and giving different weightings to each attribute in order to calculate precisely which is the best option overall.

Of course these people often become paralysed by all this comparison and analysis; unable to make any decision at all.

And, in a further sad and ironic twist, once a maximizer does finally make a decision, they typically aren’t happy with it. They suffer from post-decision regret because they worry that there might have been a better option out there somewhere; one which they overlooked or underestimated.

What about the other group?

Satisficers are those people who have a minimum standard; that is, a minimum required level for each of a (usually small) set of important attributes. The first option that a satisficer finds which meets or exceeds their minimum standard is the one that they select. At or above their minimum standard is good enough for a satisficer.

The upshot of this is that satisficers don’t spend hours, days, weeks or months analysing dozens, hundreds or thousands of options. They keep looking only long enough to find an option which is good enough and then they make their choice. And having made their choice, satisficers are happy with it; they don’t worry about whether there might have been a better option, so they don’t suffer any post-decision regret.

And, no prizes for guessing this, Barry Schwartz tells us that satisficers are generally much happier and less anxious people than maximizers.

Think about your own behaviour for a moment. Are you a maximizer or a satisficer? Think about when you choose a restaurant in which to eat, or when you decide what to eat from a menu, or about when you go shopping for clothes, a mobile phone, a new computer, etc.

After some consideration, most people answer: “well, it depends.”

For most of us, we are maximizers in some circumstances and satisficers in others. Our behaviour may even change from one type to the other during the same decision-making exercise. This happened to me a year ago when I was looking for a second hand car. Initially, my requirements for buying a car were fairly simple. I didn’t really care much about the specific make or model. I wasn’t bothered about petrol or diesel, or manual or automatic. I just wanted a car which was medium-sized, reliable and had a large boot space. I started off as a satisficer.

However, because I didn’t know much about cars, I asked a few friends what they thought. Now, I believe that external perspectives are often valuable in decision-making. However, this story acts as a cautionary tale about the possible unwanted influence of others’ advice…

My friends’ opinions and suggestions caused me to start to thinking about, and then to worry about, and finally to obsess about, attributes which I hadn’t previously thought were important. Suddenly, the car that I was looking for had to be a BMW. It had to be a 3 series. An automatic. At least a 2.5 litre engine. With a sunroof. And so on. I began to make extensive comparisons, looking for the “perfect car”. I had become a maximizer and my search for a car stretched from weeks to months. I became consumed and paralysed.

Luckily, a good friend of mine who is a second hand car dealer knocked me out of my obsessive maximizing by taking me to see a lovely Jaguar X-type, a make and model which I hadn’t even considered until that point, which was available at a great price. It did everything that I had originally wanted when I was being a satisficer and more. I bought it on the spot and have never regretted the decision.

One of the most liberating things that we can do for ourselves is to allow ourselves to be satisfied by an option which is good enough.

Blog 5 media Jaguar X-type 3

How is this reflected in the ELECTIA approach to decision-making?

It’s captured by some of the questions that support the first step in the ELECTIA decision-making process: Describe and frame the decision.

ELECTIA Process

These questions are:

  • Are we looking for the best option or an option that is good enough?
  • What are the relevant criteria for making the decision? Which are most important?
  • What is the minimum acceptable level for each of the important criteria?

The physician, psychologist, prolific author and great thinker about thinking Edward de Bono said: “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgements simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”  The first step in the process, describing and framing the decision to be made, helps us to do this by:

  • Guiding us to set our expectations to an appropriate level; that is, to decide whether we are maximizing or satisficing.
  • Guiding us to think about what’s relevant for our preferred option before we dive into (and potentially get lost in or consumed by) the details; that is, identifying what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

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