Dr. GoodCents: When Less Really Is More – Maximizers and Satisficers

Written By:


shutterstock_134384912A clinical psychologist with nearly 30 years of experience, Dr. Shapiro is ready to answer questions, offer advice and share strategies to help you alleviate the mental stresses of money management. Send your question to GoodCentsDr@gmail.com and it may be answered in an upcoming column!

Everyone wants to spend their money as wisely as possible, so we can purchase as much happiness as possible with the finite resources at our disposal. This is a complicated endeavor—which is why our column is here. There are two main sources of this complexity: The millions of products and services out there to buy, and the mysteries of human psychology.


For virtually every type of purchase we consider making—a cell phone, a brand of makeup, a car with the various options available—there is an enormous amount of information that could be considered. Just deciding which electronic devices to buy could be a full-time job, if we did all the research that could be done on this.

[Check Your Credit: Don’t Guess. Know.® Get your free credit report and score. No credit card required.

How do people get their arms around these decisions? It turns out there are two basic strategies, which correspond to two basic personality styles. And it turns out that our happiness with buying decisions depends partly on whether we are a maximizer or a satisficer.


Maximizers try to learn everything they can about the products they could buy when they make a purchase. These are the folks who do their research: The identify all their options and investigate each one, carefully examining the seams of all the suits on the rack, talking extensively with salesmen at auto dealership after auto dealership, spending lots of time reading Consumer Reports and reviews on the Internet, and so forth.

By the time they make their purchase decision, maximizers know pretty much everything there is to know about the advantages and disadvantages of the brand they decide to buy. They also know a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of the possibilities they let go. Maximizers make very well-informed choices—which itself has advantages and disadvantages.


While maximizers try to make optimal decisions, satisficers organize their shopping around the idea of good enough. When they look at all the alternatives out there and all the information about those alternatives, they throw up their hands, figure they don’t have time to sort through all that, and come to some quick but reasonable decision about what to buy. Satisficers might just buy the most popular brand, or they might ask a friend or family member whether they are happy with their cell phone or lawnmower, and if the answer is yes, go with that.

Satisficers make their purchase decisions quickly, without knowing more than basic information about the products they buy, and without knowing much at all about the alternatives they forego. Lazy? Perhaps. Satisficers probably have more leisure time than maximizers. But don’t they suffer for it by ending up with products and services they don’t really like? Actually, no.

Which Works Better?

It depends what you mean by “works.” Maximizers might eventually buy the products that are most perfect for them, but it’s a hollow victory, because they end up less happy with their purchases.

The psychologist Barry Schwartz and his colleagues have performed a number of studies that make this point. In one experiment, they set up two booths that sold chocolate: One offered 6 varieties to choose from, and one offered 30. After shoppers made their selection, they were asked to rate their satisfaction with the purchase. The shoppers who chose from 6 options were significantly happier with their chocolate than those who picked from 30.

[Check Your Credit: Don’t Guess. Know.® Get your free credit report and score. No credit card required.

It works with dating, too. Research on online daters has found that maximizers do more labor-intensive and extensive searches than satisficers, but they do not end up happier with their dates; they end up less satisfied. Single people in the world’s most sophisticated and glamorous cities, such as New York and London, have a particularly hard time deciding on someone to marry, because there are so many possible mates, and how can you decide until you’ve examined all the possibilities?

Roads Not Taken

Most people are maximizers in some situations and satisficers in others; it’s a question of degree. Of course we should spend some time thinking through our shopping decisions, and important choices, like a house and mortgage, should be made with lots of care and attention. But the modern marketplace presents us with an array of options that is unparalleled in human history and way beyond the information processing capacity of normal human beings. Much of the decision-making we could do just isn’t worth the time, because the major competitors in each product niche are approximately as good as each other, and the differences between them aren’t worth obsessing about.

Satisficers settle for what is good enough and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better out there. Because they don’t know much about the products they passed up, they don’t drive themselves crazy thinking about what is missing from the purchase they did make. As a result, satisficers are happier than maximizers and less prone to depression. So don’t pour more energy into your spending decisions than they require, and you’ll have more time for the good things in life.