The Paradox of Choice and the dangers of perfection

As important as I believe National Save for Retirement Week is, I have to confess that after four days (five, if you count Sunday), I'm bored of it. My short attention span has dwindled. (Imagine the difficulties I'm having as I try to concentrate on writing a book for three months solid!)

Instead, I want to shift gears for a moment and talk about a subject with immediate real-life implications: the dangers of perfection.

Good vs. Perfect

While doing research for my book (Your Money: The Missing Manual), I re-read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. The Paradox of Choice is about how we think that choice will make us happy — but it doesn't. In fact, too much choice just might turn you into a basket case, especially if you're a certain type of person.

Schwartz describes his research into two groups of people, Maximizers and Satisficers:

  • Maximizers are those who only accept the best. Every time they make a purchase (or do anything else, for that matter), they need to be sure they've made the best decision possible. When shopping for shoes, for example, a Maximizer wants to look at all of the options. She wants to compare of the prices. And even after she's made her purchase, she worries that maybe she missed a better shoe or a better price at another store.
  • Satisficers, on the other hand, have learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, good enough often is. Satisficers have learned to settle for something other than the best. A Satisficer still has expectations and standards, but once she's found something that meets those standards, she buys it. When shopping for shoes, a Satisficer makes do with a pair that meets her needs at a price she can afford.

Many Maximizers believe that Satisficers are comfortable with mediocrity. That's not necessarily true. Satisficers are just as interested in quality as Maximizers — but they're not willing to spend the extra time moving from “excellent” to “best”.

The Problem With Perfect

As you might guess, Maximizers are not as happy as Satisficers. In his research, Schwartz has found that:

  • Maximizers are more likely to regret their purchases despite the fact that they have (in theory, at least) come closer than Satisficers to making the best decision.
  • On the flip side, Satisficers generally feel more positive about their purchases. They know they've made a choice that met their expectations.
  • Maximizers enjoy positive events less than Satisficers, and they don't cope as well with negative events.

Maximizing and satisficing have important implications in the world of personal finance. Researchers have found, for example, that when an employer increases the number of options for retirement savings, the likelihood that employees will actually save for retirement goes down. Similarly, you could spend a lot of time searching for the bank with the best CD rates or the mutual fund with the best returns. Soon, though, something better would come along and you'd be unhappy. For most people, it makes more sense to make a good choice and stick with it.

Maximizing in Real Life

I like to think that I'm a Satisficer (and in many ways, I am), but the reality is I'm a Maximizer. Too much choice paralyzes me. Let me give you an example I've been saving for months.

Last spring, I got a haircut I really liked. As we were finishing, the stylist offered to sell me some “product”. But when I saw the prices, I balked. I could walk next door to the supermarket to buy “product” for much much less. So I did. But when I got to the hair care aisle, I was greeted by this intimidating sight:

The Paradox of Choice
I count at least 49 different options in this photo (and there were more!)

And that's just a small portion of the hair gels, creams, and mousses available to me. I spent fifteen minutes looking at all of the options (no joke) while Kris did the grocery shopping. And you know what? I still wasn't able to pick one. I went home without any “product”, and just combed my hair with water, as I always have.

Too much choice is no choice at all. Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that if you give a consumer a handful of options, he's happy. He feels in control of his life. But when there are dozens of choices available, he's all at sea. (This is one reason I'm happier picking from six dinner options at our local Italian place than 120+ options at Claim Jumper.)

Less Than Perfect

The Paradox of Choice is a fascinating book. Schwartz offers plenty of data and real-world examples (some pulled from his own life) to illustrate how too much choice actually makes us unhappy. In the end, he offers almost a dozen tips for Maximizers that would like to be a little less stressed. Among them are these:

  • Don't sweat unimportant decisions. Did it really matter which hair gel I selected? Of course not. I should have just picked one in the first ten seconds and called it good enough.
  • Limit your options. If you're faced with overwhelming choices, arbitrarily reduce the field. When shopping for a new bicycle, for example, restrict yourself to a certain store or a certain brand.
  • Learn to accept “good enough”. If you're a Maximizer like me, it can be tough to make the leap to the land of Satisficing. But remember: The perfect is the enemy of the good. You'll be happier if you accept a good option and stop looking for perfection.
  • Stick with what you know. Schwartz argues that unless you're dissatisfied with a product, you should stick with what you always buy. Don't be tempted by “new and improved” options. Habits make people happy. (My research shows that this last fact is true in many ways.)
  • Don't second guess yourself. Once you've made a decision, stick with it. Buyer's remorse can nag at your heart. Ignore it. Be decisive.
  •  
  • Embrace restraints. Schwartz argues that it's possible to learn to love limitations. Limits give us boundaries. They eliminate uncertainty. When we know our boundaries, we can focus on thriving within them.

While it's true that some choice is a good thing, too much is not. It's easy to pick the best option from a pool of three, but it's difficult to find the perfect choice in a pool of thirty. The truth is “perfect” is a moving target. It's nearly impossible to hit. It's better to make a solid decision today than a perfect decision next week.

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Chett
Chett
10 years ago

Here is a video of Barry talking about this topic at a TED conference.

http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

Here is another video from Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist, discussing how choice affects happiness.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-4flnuxNV4
Good stuff!

Tristan Lee
Tristan Lee
10 years ago

I think the reason many people are unhappy with being perfect is because they are always wondering if they are perfect or not. The truth is there is no such thing as perfection.

One person’s perfect can be another person’s imperfect and vice versa. That’s why I liked it when you reminded us not to second guess ourselves and not to sweat the small stuff in life. This helps us become a lot more “chill” and “chill” is good.

Theory
Theory
10 years ago

I’ve stated this to my friends as, “The first 10% of your effort will give you 90% of your results.”

So why bother going the extra mile in anything you aren’t very passionate about? Only then will the extra 10% of results be worth all the extra effort.

And I don’t think too many of us are that passionate about hair care 😀

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I’ve found myself falling into your hair gel trap many times with different choices. Of your given tips, “limit your options” has been the most helpful for me. Simply rattle off a list of criteria that the choice you’re making *absolutely* must have. Eliminate everything that doesn’t fit all of those criteria. If there’s still more than five or so choices on the list, add more criteria. Generally, I’ll also allow brand loyalty to limit my choices. If I was happy with the last product I bought from company X, but need a new one, I’ll only look at the… Read more »

Josh Wheeler
Josh Wheeler
10 years ago

Wow! This is one of the things I’ve been working on / thinking about personally for the past few months. It never occurred to me that there have been studies done on it.

I’m definitely a “Maximizer” or “perfectionist”, even with purchases I make. I’m a musician and music teacher after all… it comes with the territory. However, I’ve been trying to become more of a “Saticficer”. I’m getting better. Now I can finally pick which burger I want at the drive through in a few seconds instead of sitting there until someone finally pulls up behind me!

David C
David C
10 years ago

Wasn’t it DEVO who said “Freedom from choice is what you want, Freedom of choice is what you’ve got”?

I have moved from being a Maximizer to a Satisficer over the last few years and my happiness has increased substantially. I do find myself over-analyzing from time to time, but not nearly as much as I used to. Sometimes good enough is good enough!

E
E
10 years ago

hah! I totally agree with this. I am a firm believer in “good enough”. Perfect is not worth my time. A friend of mine needed a new mattress. She spent days driving around, visited at least 10 stores, lay on dozens of mattresses, agonized for weeks and when she finally bought one, she wasn’t happy with it. Still she was surprised that I wouldn’t take her advice when I needed a mattress. Instead I went to 2 stores, tried maybe 5 mattresses, and bought one the same day. Still have it, and it’s still comfy. 😀 I did the same… Read more »

mdp
mdp
10 years ago

I found so much freedom in this concept when I first heard of it – I think I was a born Satisficer who’d been trained into thinking Maximizer behavior was the way you’re “supposed to” do things.

Eric F.
Eric F.
10 years ago

Someone should convert Schwartz research and apply to a handy handbook for post-grads. The title should be: ‘Your research won’t be concluding, there will be methodological flaws, chances are slim that it will be read by more than 5 people (including you), so stop perfecting and start writing.’

Now, let me apply this to myself and continue working on my Masters…

RMS
RMS
10 years ago

Great article. I was a Maximizer as a kid, especially when it comes to school. Similar to David C, as I got older, the specifics become less important and as long as it is in the general ballpark, I am relatively satisfied. I think I am easier to work with because of being a Satisficer.

GRC
GRC
10 years ago

This article is excellent, and has me think about my current relationship. I am engaged to the perfect example of a Maximizer. On the other hand I am a complete Minimizer. It is incredible how well this article has helped me understand her. I hope that as time goes we get a little more in the middle of the road, as both extremes do lead to big trouble.

Great Article..

ZFarls
ZFarls
10 years ago

Absolutely one of the top posts I have read in months. The fact that I purchased shoes two hours ago is creepy. I had a nice 50 dollar pair that were fine…”Should I go next door and check for more” “Should I go to amazon”? Im also getting a computer soon and the same situation is nagging at me, too many options. On most items I just buy whatever and go but ESPECIALLY now that its my own money that im spending and not parents, can make you become more of a maxamizer. Great stuff! Also, we will talk about… Read more »

Shane
Shane
10 years ago

This is a nice change of pace, and something I think many of us can relate to. It’s a different perspective of “Keeping Up With The Jones'”.

Retailers love maximizers because the maximizers always need the latest and greatest product. The satisficers are contempt with the television they bought ten years ago.

I find that sometimes I am a maximizer, while other times I’m a satisficer. After reading this article though, my awareness of the issue has jumped, and I can work on becoming less of a maximizer, and more of a satisficer!

olga
olga
10 years ago

I claim this is exactly why folks from less-than-developed countries are in general happier. They are satisfied. Back in USSR we had little to no choices. If you get an appartment – awesome! Likely, you live with your parents till they die. You practically never dream about a car, unless you are an “important boss”, and even then it’s some 20 years down the road. Laundry machine was an excess. Supermarket? Be happy with 3 choices of cheese, but boy, how delicious were those, nothing compares here! Whether it’s because of my background, or defensive/survival mechanism due to life’s troubles… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

I think I’m a hybrid – a maximizer with big, infrequent purchases and a satisficer with everyday stuff. I comparison shop for hours on end (like now – I’m looking for a new, inexpensive laptop) and read tons of reviews for the former. For everyday stuff, I’m more willing to try new things or make quick decisions. Like Tyler, I’m pretty brand loyal (or disloyal if a brand has given me a bad experience). Maybe you should just ask your hair stylist what brand she recommends and buy that from a cheaper source? Or see if she recommends a “store… Read more »

Lesley
Lesley
10 years ago

I see this so much in my life… I’ve been trying to be a Satisficer for a long time now, but I’m married to a Maximizer and he DRIVES ME CRAZY every time he has a decision to make. And even afterward, because if I bought something, I do NOT spend any more time thinking about it. He, however, continues to watch sales and read up on it and of course eventually either the product we bought comes on for cheaper or something newer and better comes out, and ARGGGHHHHH!!!!!

Christie
Christie
10 years ago

I think I’ve been becoming a Satisficer for a while now. I hate to shop and the feeling I’ve been left with after doing a bunch of research and hunting down the best price is that all that work did’t really matter and I just wasted my time. I find that sometimes it means I end up paying more than if I had put more work into the purchase, but when I think I the time and aggravation I’ve saved, I am pretty sure I’m really ahead. What also works well is for me to decide what I’m going to… Read more »

Dave
Dave
10 years ago

As a 41 year-old person one would think by now I’d have figured out what my thoughts are doing to me! I over-analyze to the point that I struggle with even simple decisions. Buyer’s remorse is common for me. Other times I expect perfection from others, and am disappointed when it doesn’t happen. It’s a behavior that really causes problems, and you’ve given me insight into something to try to understand better. I’m reminded of something a manager said to me years ago when I was working on a project. I was perfecting my work on a document & he… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Ya know… this advice is really good when it comes to another area of personal finance — picking mutual funds. Today’s 4&5 star funds aren’t guaranteed to be that way tomorrow, so how do we at least avoid the poor ones? Pick the ones with lowest expenses?

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I agree with ‘Theory’ (though not exactly his numbers ;)). Hubby and I often refer to the 80% solution. The 80% solution takes 20% of the effort and is typically good enough. I have found less than this often results in sub-par results. I have found the alternative approaches are true in relationships as well. Satisficers are likely to take the annoying habits of their significant other in stride (if I didn’t turn a conscious blind eye to some things I would have killed my hubby a long time ago). Maximizers are more likely to be the people who won’t… Read more »

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

This reminded me of a quote I learned this summer after my husband and I were complaining about a co-worker of ours:

“If that co-worker was a little better in this area and more like you in that area, he wouldn’t be your co-worker he would be your competition!” That really opened my eyes up to being a Satisficer not only when it comes to buying things, but how I perceive my relationships now.

Rex Huston
Rex Huston
10 years ago

Certain companies have made a living off of the “Paradox of Choice”. In N Out Burger in Southern California for example. They offer 3 burgers: hamburger, cheeseburger, and double double. With very little offerings, they have a huge devoted fan base. It is even a hot spot for tourists. People want to come and try In N Out burger.

Gary
Gary
10 years ago

Excellent post. I’m one of those Maximizers who has had many attacks of analysis-paralysis and has walked away as a result with no action taken. I’m trying to become a Satisficer, with mixed results so far; thankfully it’s worked out OK for regular monthly investments, but I still spend way too much time planning for vacations or booking hotels etc. In the end, I’m not happy with the results. I’ll get there one day, I think.

Foxie | CarsxGirl
Foxie | CarsxGirl
10 years ago

I think I fall into the “Satisficer” category, but I’m sure there are times when I’m a “Maximizer.” I have a few examples that really land me as a Satisficer, which I’m glad to be! One is the tote bag I recently bought, after deciding I wanted a large, neutral colored tote bag. I had my eye on one for $148 and had yet to pull the trigger, when one came along for $100. I got the $100 one and have been enjoying it ever since. (Looking forward to getting a dSLR now that I have a bag to fit… Read more »

Jane
Jane
10 years ago

I really liked this article. The bit about the hair-products made me laugh.

I think I’m a maximizer about shoes. As a result, I only have one pair apart from my sneakers that I can actually wear. The rest are all broken. I keep going to look at the shops and never buy a pair. It’s been six months now, but none ever seem quite right! 🙂

Tyler@Frugally Green
10 years ago

I think I’m somewhat of a hybrid. When I need to make a decision, I analyze every minute detail and pour over it until I feel like I’ve invested the maximum amount of time I can afford to spend for whatever the severity of the decision is. Then, once I make my choice, that’s that. I don’t suffer from buyer’s remorse and I don’t worry about what else might be out there that I missed out on. I think this comes from setting myself up with a limit for how long I’m going to spend thinking about something and using… Read more »

Tyler@Frugally Green
10 years ago

@ Rex (#22)

Funny thing about In n Out is that they actually probably have more choices than almost any other fast food place out there, they just don’t publish all the options on the menu.

I think that’s actually the draw. You have to do your research and know the lingo in order to get something besides the basic burger.

Rex Huston
Rex Huston
10 years ago

@Tyler 26

Yes they do have a “secret menu” and I could see how that also adds to the draw. You feel like you belong to a exclusive club or something.

I don’t have any statistics but I would assume that more often than not one of the three burger choices from the menu is chosen. I think people like the fact that they focus on a small number of great tasting items instead of a large number of mediocre items.

Broke MBA
Broke MBA
10 years ago

Wow, great article. I’m not really sure what to say, but I feel like I was just sucker punched in the groin (in a good way…)

I’ve often been paralyzed when trying to take action, because I’m obviously a maximizer. I’ve known this to be true, I just didn’t realize their was a scientific label for me. Looking forward to picking up this book.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Great post and discussion. I am 100% Satisficer now and soooo glad. Had to make a conscious change, though. And what a difference it has made, especially with job satisfaction.

One thing that I hear a lot of complaints about is travel and vacations. Boy, people just love to bitch about their vacation nightmares! Invariably they have tried to micromanage the whole experience. Being a Satisficer in that area makes life a LOT more fun.

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

I’ve read some other reviews (and excerpts) of this book, and I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I’m definitely a maximizer. I agonize over every decision, and I know I suffer because of it. For example, I looked forward to buying a house in part because I could paint it however I wanted, but I’ve owned my house for over a year and haven’t been able to decide on paint colors (there are literally thousands of choices!), so I still have boring white walls. I still have temporary paper window shades in my bedroom because I haven’t… Read more »

Patty - Why Not Start Now?
Patty - Why Not Start Now?
10 years ago

Great topic. I’ve been a maximizer but as I’ve gotten older I’ve moved toward being a satisficer. I simply don’t want to spend so much precious time fretting over every decision. So I wonder if one’s perception of time has anything to do with it. I also wonder if personality type is involved. According to the MBTI, perceivers may agonize over coming to a conclusion, while judgers often make the quick decision and get on with it.

Charlotte
Charlotte
10 years ago

This is why I shop at Trader Joe’s. They are mostly all TJ’s brand that I alrady like.

I also only shop at 3 different clothing stores. Shoes – I am loyal to Merrell.

I love restaurants with a small menu. That also usually means the food will be well prepared.

I have learned to be a satisficer (is that even a word ,JD? I think it should have been satisfier?) since I started my journey to a simple life.

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

I’m so proud of the fact that I do this most of the time. Large purchases still paralyze me, but when it comes to small everyday decisions, it’s best to do SOMETHING and move on. My friends laugh when I look at something critically and say, “That is SO good enough!”. Makes me happy, like I’ve given them something to take home.

Penny
Penny
10 years ago

I have heard of the concept of ‘GEMO’, which stands for ‘Good Enough Move On’.

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
10 years ago

I think I often use the frugal choice as default as a way to minimize choices.

As for hair gel and other such products, check out Paula Begoun’s reviews: she finds many cheap quality products. No need to buy what the stylist is pushing.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
10 years ago

I think it’s all just a matter of time if you hvae the right PROCESS.

We will all be comfortable rich when we retire. It just takes time.

FS

Marcella
Marcella
10 years ago

Oh wow, this one really hits home for me. I’m had terrible maximizer tendancies for some big purchases in the past, that’s for sure, though the more I spend money on big items, the more I realize I need to be more of a satisficer. I don’t find my maximizer ways detrimental for small purchases. Don’t you think maximizer and frugal/thrifty are kind of interlinked? I always investigate and consider the best value for all of my purchases and am always happy that I have not wasted my money. As long as I’m not paralyzed by choice and regretful of… Read more »

Maharani
Maharani
10 years ago

Im a Satisficer and always have been. Many years ago I had a roommate who was a perfectionist-a Maximizer. She drove me nuts. It is an exceedingly irritating and timewasting trait. Her mantra was “If a job is worth doing, its worth doing WELL”. WELL-SORRY-there are multitudes of tasks that are worth doing but not worth doing WELL-just get the job done and move on. Nothing was good enough for her, she was always fussing and picking, dissatisfied, returning stuff to stores, comparison shopping and in particular an overly houseproud neat freak. I moved out in the end. Living with… Read more »

seawallrunner
seawallrunner
10 years ago

Maximizer and Satisficer come from Gallup research. If you would like to learn what are your dominant types, look no further than here

The book is called “StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths”

I took the test online and discovered – some years ago – that I was a Maximizer (among other traits). A very helpful profiling book, with recommendations for careers that one can be successful in, given one’s strengths. Highly recommended reading.

Jan
Jan
10 years ago

Too many choices in life in the US. I relate this article to my nephew. He got his degree in “university”. He had so many credits-it was time to graduate. Unfortuantely, he had so few credits in one area-there was no major. He (and 500 others) simply graduated with a degree in “college” with several minors….too many choices! You can maximize yourself to indecision.

Will
Will
10 years ago

Such paralysis has literally kept me away from buying a new car for many years. I have a 9 year old pickup truck that is great shape. Whenever I would think about replacing it, I would immediately be swamped with “should i get another truck or maybe a car this time” “I should look at all the brands, but wait this toyota has ran great but oh look lately (2005) they were having quality of paint issues” and “well toyota is kind of ugly, let’s look at other brands”. Then if you actually narrow it down some, go to the… Read more »

The Arabic Student
The Arabic Student
10 years ago

This post really covers a principle that applies everywhere in life. When starting a website or a blog to make some extra money you may want to tweak the site to make it look perfect or think about what your first blog post should be about, but in reality you would get more visitors and make more money if you just chose a topic and published it. The quest to make something perfect has definitely cost people throughout history so much.

Shang Lee
Shang Lee
10 years ago

Love this book! and I’ll take your cue and re-read this again.

Charity
Charity
10 years ago

Good stuff! I have thought a lot about this since I moved from a smallish town to a mid-sized city four years ago. In the small town I had fewer options for entertainment, so I made a point of enjoying as many of them as I could and really appreciating what was in front of me. In the city I have so many options that all seem worthwhile. So what do I do now that I live in the city? Sometimes I do fun touristy things, but mostly I’m overwhelmed by choices and I end up just sticking with what… Read more »

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

Interesting psychology! And true to life, also.

My sister is a classic Maximizer and I’m a classic Sasfactioner. She researched over a year once before buying a couch, while last year I decided everything about my kitchen remodel in only 2 days (in time to take advantage of a 20% cabinet discount)!

On the other hand, I’ve been married & divorced twice, while she’s been married >20 years to the same guy. So maybe there are advantages to being a Maximizer after all?

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

The point being made is a good one. Human inertia is a powerful force. Considering too many choices often causes us not to act at all We need to be looking for ways to overcome inertia and considering too many choices often cuts the other way. However, there are circumstances in which “good enough” choices cause real harm. There are two that spring to mind. I think it is worth keeping a budget. I don’t think you should become a slave to it. But I think you learn so much from knowing the numbers of your financial life that this… Read more »

Liz
Liz
10 years ago

I tend to be a maximizer if the item is more expensive. I’ve been looking to replace our home computer and have searched for MONTHS with nothing seeming “perfect.” I think our computer will die before I make a purchase – which really isn’t ideal! (I’m struggling with the Windows / Mac thing right now.) The same thing happened when I purchased my car…Edmunds, Consumer Reports, internet searches. It took several months. I will admit that it is time consuming and a bit exhausting to be a maximizer – but I guess that is how I am programmed.

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

This is the “Keep it Simple” philosophy just reworded. I couldn’t agree with you more on the limiting of choices.Think of children (I work with them daily, so this is an easy analogy for me,and the first thing that popped into my head). If you give a child too many choices, they become baffled and can’t make a decision. If you limit it to two or three at the most, they easily choose one and move on.

thanks for the post!

sandy
sandy
10 years ago

Whe my husband and I were first married we lived in Germany for 3 years (on the economy, not military). In stores, even big stores, thre were only a few choices offered on almost every product line, foods, cosmetics,pet, etc… I found my favorites of each after a while, and as a result, shopping took only a few minutes per week. I remember when I returned stateside for a vacation after 1 1/2 years of being away, and went shopping at a normal American store. I was shocked! I remember standing in the cereal aisle, absolutely dumbfounded…how on earth can… Read more »

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