• James Odene

Are you a maximiser or a satisficer?

Let’s start with some definitions:

Maximising: Using all of the information possible to try and make the best well-studied decision. Time-consuming but attempts to discover the most optimal decision.

Satisficing: A term coined by economist and cognitive psychologist Herbert A. Simon, it is a combination of ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’. This is a decision-making process where an optimal answer is not sought, due to a lack of data or resource, favouring instead an answer that is ‘good enough’.

Which are you?

There are two ways this binary can be considered, on both a personal and situational basis.

I am undoubtedly a satisficer. In my personal life in nearly most things, ‘good enough’ will do, as long as it seems quite easy and if there later transpires some negative effects I’ll try and solve it with the next few satisficing decisions… works fine for choosing hairstyles or what colour socks to wear however this way of living doesn’t exactly bode well for personal financial management.

At work, however I try my utmost to be a maximiser! Typically, within the work environment, maximising decisions are often the only kind that are deemed acceptable. I would argue however that this shouldn’t always be the case.

If you are working in HR or payroll, then I’m pretty sure that choosing to make satisficing decisions will quickly get you into some hot water – I wasn’t that sure on what your wage should be this month, so I just kind of made a good guess at a figure…

People don’t love an advertising campaign because it’s backed up by data. This point is proven every time I think I watched a good advert only to discover that it was indeed one for McDonald’s!

Instinct is powerful

Working within communications, however, is a very different kind of sport! Accepting that people make decisions in unusual, quirky and surprising ways, the work we create doesn’t always need to be underpinned with tireless logic and data. If this kind of maximising behaviour is used in creating social media posts, for example, you’ll probably manage to post one thing a month. Or decisions where an optimal is not possible due to lack of data - What type of flyer should we print? Who should we hire for the voiceover? What new font should we choose? – here satisficing is perfectly reasonable. Of course, the next step can be A/B testing to aim to optimise and create data in which to make a decision but there will always be a point where satisficing will do the job well.

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
Herbert A. Simon

To take this a step further, imagine that actually making more satisficing decisions could lead to bigger wins. With all the quirks and surprises in communications, where something odd, funny or irrational suddenly becomes viral, it is rational to suggest that a firm maximising process will never allow for these moments of marketing magic as they stray away from anything that appears to be illogical, irrational or not backed up by multiple data points – when this could be the exact location of the biggest and best work. It’s an interesting thought. Recently at a Behavioural Science conference (Nudgestock 2019), Rory Sutherland quipped that after all, while we are all running around trying to capture more data, the iceberg that sunk the Titanic was just ‘a single human data point’.

In the Titanic moment:

Maximising- 0

Trusting human instinct by satisficing - 1

There is a reason we aim to maximise at work

If you are at work and make a maximising decision and it goes wrong for some reason, you are pretty safe and secure from any backlash as you can simple point to all the data, all the research, all the documents and data and documents and data and documents and data and documents and data... and say, see - we backed this up. However, make a satisficing decision that doesn’t pull off and you could fear that you’re going to lose your job! Why did you create the adverts with singing cats wearing tutus? Oh, I just really thought that it would work and had a better potential to become viral.

Of course, a mix of both kinds of decisions are always needed, and I am not advocating for maverick marketing that is just based on a whim, but suppose you could hire solid maximisers who consistently make ok campaigns, or satisficer who occasionally make globally viral campaigns, which would you choose? It’s an interesting point of debate.

As small side note in favour of joining the satisficing league in your personal life - there is research to suggest that satisficers are happier in life... just saying ;)

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