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How You Make Decisions Says a Lot About How Happy You Are

I was witness to a tricky marital exchange last week, when my
sister and her husband were trying to name their new red
Labrador puppy.
Rachel had spent hours trolling for ideas on the Internet and
polling friends and family. Days later, she had dozens of
monikers in the running—Valentino, Fonzie, Holden, Simba,
Brandy Junior (named for our beloved childhood spaniel) and
Olivia Newton John (don’t ask).
Finally, Rachel’s husband, J.J., interrupted: “Let’s just call
him Jimmy.”
Psychology researchers have studied how people make
decisions and concluded there are two basic styles.
“Maximizers” like to take their time and weigh a wide range
of options—sometimes every possible one—before choosing.
“Satisficers” would rather be fast than thorough; they prefer to
quickly choose the option that fills the minimum criteria (the
word “satisfice” blends “satisfy” and “suffice”).
“Maximizers are people who want the very best. Satisficers
are people who want good enough,” says Barry Schwartz, a
professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in
Pennsylvania and author of “The Paradox of Choice.”
Dr. Schwartz has developed a 13-level test to assess a
person’s decision-making orientation. Each statement is
scored on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly
agree). The higher your score, the more of a maximizer you
are.
Most people fall somewhere in the middle. A person can
maximize when it comes to some decisions and satisfice on
others.
In a study published in 2006 in the journal Psychological
Science, Dr. Schwartz and colleagues followed 548 job-
seeking college seniors at 11 schools from October through
their graduation in June.
Across the board, they found that the maximizers landed
better jobs. Their starting salaries were, on average, 20%
higher than those of the satisficers, but they felt worse about
their jobs.
“The maximizer is kicking himself because he can’t examine
every option and at some point had to just pick something,”
Dr. Schwartz says. “Maximizers make good decisions and end
up feeling bad about them. Satisficers make good decisions
and end up feeling good.”
Dr. Schwartz says he found nothing to suggest that either
maximizers or satisficers make bad decisions more often.
Satisficers also have high standards, but they are happier than
maximizers, he says. Maximizers tend to be more depressed
and to report a lower satisfaction with life, his research found.
The older you are, the less likely you are to be a maximizer—
which helps explain why studies show people get happier as
they get older.
“One of the things that life teaches you is that ‘good enough’
is almost always good enough,” Dr. Schwartz says. “You
learn that you can get satisfaction out of perfectly wonderful
but not perfect outcomes.”
Dr. Schwartz says he found men are no more or less likely
than women to be either satisficers or maximizers. He hasn’t
researched whether people tend to pair up with mates who
have similar, or opposite, decision-making styles—or how
they make decisions with a partner.
People with opposite styles might be better off together
because they balance each other out, he theorizes. Standards
will be high, but decisions will get made. “If you are both
maximizers, neither of you will be able to relinquish your
standards,” Dr. Schwartz says.
David Gerzof Richard makes quick, decisive choices. His
wife, Brooke, likes to research every option. The spouses,
who live in Brookline, Mass., say they didn’t learn to make
decisions together until after an event early in their marriage
that they refer to as “the car.”
Mr. Richard, 39, a marketing professor and public relations
executive, decided the couple needed a new car to replace
their old one. He spent a few days researching SUVs, found a
good deal on an Audi Q5 and signed the lease—without
telling his wife.
“I knew that bringing her into the conversation about it up
front was going to take way too long, and we would miss the
deal,” he says. “So I pushed the button.”
Ms. Richard wasn’t happy when he told her. At her insistence,
the spouses spent the weekend test-driving five more cars.
“I was irritated because even though it was a very nice car, it
was still a big decision, and a shared car that we were going
to use together in the future when we have kids,” says Ms.
Richard, a 36-year-old furniture designer.
The couple stuck with the Q5—Ms. Richard agreed that it
remained the best deal—but they both learned something
about how their decision-making styles could complement
each other’s. “I will say, ‘Let’s get moving on this,’ ” Mr.
Richard says, “and she will say, ‘Slow your roll.’ ”
“His decision-making makes it so we can get it done faster
and don’t lose opportunities,” Ms. Richard says. “And my
decision-making makes sure we are truly not forgetting to
consider what is important.”
In most cases, whoever cares most about the result should
choose, Dr. Schwartz says. This isn’t the same as always
letting the maximizer decide.
If the maximizer is paralyzed with indecision, it can work best
if the satisficer chooses, Dr. Schwartz says. Many mismatched
couples find it helps to let the person with the higher
standards decide—lest the satisficer pick something that isn’t
up to the maximizer’s standards.
Either way, couples should talk about the decision and narrow
down the possibilities together. “Once you have narrowed the
list from your point of view, what does it matter if your
ridiculously perfectionist spouse chooses?” Dr. Schwartz says.
Rob Ynes creates spreadsheets when he makes major
decisions. His wife, Mary Ellen, prides herself on being able
to decide on a new car, children’s names—“Even shoes!” she
says—with little or no deliberation.
“I see it, I consider a few options and bam!—within minutes,
a decision and most likely a purchase is made,” says Ms.
Ynes, a 50-year-old public relations representative in
Redwood City, Calif.
During a recent kitchen renovation, they worked through
design decisions together, but then disaster struck. Just before
the backsplash was going to be installed, they learned the
Italian stone they had selected was out of stock. “Panic set
in,” Ms. Ynes says. “Rob began to furiously call around to the
different tile stores and search online for an exact replica of
the stone that we could no longer have.”
Mr. Ynes, 54, a certified public accountant and chief financial
officer at a consumer-goods company, says, “I have learned in
my profession that I need to make decisions that will stand up
to scrutiny and the test of time. It is hard to separate that from
my personal life.”
After 48 hours, Ms. Ynes looked at several samples and
quickly picked one. “Decision made. Move on,” she says. “I
think that in situations like this, compromise truly is the best
and cheapest lawyer,” she says.
A day later, though, her husband found the tile the couple had
chosen originally—and that is what is being installed. “I am
willing to put in a little extra time and make sure it’s
something I really want to live with,” Mr. Ynes says.
As for the puppy, my 6-year-old nephew came up with a
possible tie breaker: “Let’s call him Lightning McQueen!”
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Bonds@wsj.com
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BONDS
How You Make Decisions Says a Lot
About How Happy You Are
‘Maximizers’ Check All Options, ‘Satisficers’ Make
the Best Decision Quickly: Guess Who’s Happier
Some people like to weigh every option even if it
takes a long time, while others think ‘good
enough’ is good enough. GETTY IMAGES
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COMMENTS
By
ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
ROB SHEPPERSON
Decisions, Decisions …
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