Satisficing gets a bad wrap, but it isn’t actually that bad of a way to make decisions and it realistically accommodates the constraints and challenges that decision-makers in the real world face. None of us would like admit when we are satisficing, but the reality is that we are happy to satisfice all the time, and we are often happy with the results.
In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer recommends satisficing when trying to chose what to order at a restaurant. Regarding this strategy for ordering, he writes:
“Satisficing: This … means to choose the first option that is satisfactory; that is, good enough. You need the menu for this rule. First, you pick a category (say, fish). Then you read the first item in this category, and decide whether it is good enough. If yes, you close the menu and order that dish without reading any further.”
Satisficing works because we often have more possibilities than we have time to carefully weigh and consider. If you have never been to the Cheesecake Factory, reading each option on the menu for the first time would probably take you close to 30 minutes. If you are eating on your own and don’t have any time constraints, then sure, read the whole menu, but the staff will probably be annoyed with you. If you are out with friends or on a date, you probably don’t want to take 30 minutes to order, and you will feel pressured to make a choice relatively quickly without having full knowledge and information regarding all your options. Satisficing helps you make a selection that you can be relatively confident you will be happy with given some constraints on your decision-making.
The term satisficing was coined by the Nobel Prize winning political scientist and economist Herbert Simon, and I remember hearing a story from a professor of mine about his decision to remain at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh. When asked why he hadn’t taken a position at Harvard or a more prestigious Ivy League School, Simon replied that his wife was happy in Pittsburgh and while Carnegie Melon wasn’t as renown as Harvard it was still a good school and still offered him enough of what he wanted to remain. In other words, Carnegie Melon satisfied his basic needs and satisfied criteria in enough areas to make him happy, even though a school like Harvard would have maximized his prestige and influence. Simon was satisficing.
Without always recognizing it, we turn to satisficing for many of our decisions. We often can’t buy the perfect home (because of timing, price, and other bidders), so we satisfice and buy the first home we can get a good offer on that meets enough of our desires (but doesn’t fit all our desires perfectly). The same goes for jobs, cars, where we are going to get take-out, what movie we want to rent, what new clothes to buy, and more. Carefully analyzing every potential decision we have to make can be frustrating and exhausting. We will constantly doubt whether we made the best choice, and we may be too paralyzed to even make a decision in the first place. If we satisfice, however, we accept that we are not making the best choice but are instead making an adequate choice that satisfies the greatest number of our needs while simplifying the choice we have to make. We can live with what we get and move on without the constant doubt and loss of time that we might otherwise experience. Satisficing, while getting a bad rep from those who favor rationality in all instances, is actually a pretty good decision-making heuristic.