Moving the Mental Goalposts: Why Aiming for the “Best” Isn’t Always The Best Strategy

When we make our New Year’s resolutions or set ourselves a list of personal goals, we often think in terms of maximums; we phrase them along the lines of “I want to be as fit as I can be,” “I want to make as much money as possible,” or “I want to give as much back to charity as I can.” Our governments often do the same; for example, in many countries, the rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has been to reduce the transmission and hospitalizations from the virus as much as possible before, for example, opening up shops or allowing mass gatherings.

These types of goals are known as “maximizing” goals. By that, we mean that they don’t have a particular end target; the aim is simply to become the best, or do as much, as we possibly can. Cognitively, it requires constant exploration and analysis to ensure the “best” option hasn’t been overlooked, and that we are always optimizing our decisions and actions to achieve this target.

One issue that arises from maximizing goals is that they are, by their very nature, extremely difficult to reach and complete. At what point can we say that we are the “fittest” we can be? What does that even mean? Surely we can always be a little bit more fit? Similarly, at what point have we done enough to stem the transmission of COVID-19 before opening up hairdressers?

Without a clear, reality-oriented goalpost, but rather a vague determination to improve or maximize our ability in an area, we are not only setting ourselves up for disappointment, but we are also potentially wasting time and energy. Without properly interrogating whether or not a particular ambition needs to be maximized or not, we may spend needless resources becoming the best at something that we would be happy simply being pretty good at.

In light of this, behavioral economics suggests that there is a different type of goal that we can, and should, be routinely setting for ourselves: satisficing goals. Satisficing goals are those where we seek an option or goal that is “good enough.” It is particularly useful when we have incomplete information, when we’re dealing with systems that involve high levels of uncertainty, or when we do not have the resources to invest in searching for all potential alternatives in aid of maximizing. 

To help understand the difference between a maximizing and satisficing goal, let us take the example of fitness.

Maximizing: I want to be as fit as I can be.

Satisficing: I want to be fit enough to run a 5k without stopping.

For another example, this time related to writing:

Maximizing: I want to write more this year.

Satisficing: I want to write an article every month this year.

The debate between maximizing and satisficing goals in economic theory

The controversy between maximizing and satisficing is deep-seated within economics. The debate was first introduced by Simon in 19551 and popularised by Schwartz in 2002,2 and it can mean different things within different contexts. For this article, we will simply look at it within the context of goal-setting. 

Research has shown that those who satisfice enjoy their choices more. They also spend less time and create less stress for themselves while making choices. A landmark paper, published in 2002 by Barry Schwartz and colleagues,2 investigated the decision-making of undergraduate university students. In the first stage of their study, they gave the students a questionnaire to determine firstly whether the students were had more “maximizing” or “satisficing” personalities, and secondly to evaluate their well-being across a number of domains: life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, and self-esteem. 

They found that those who maximized their choices and goals were less happy and had lower self-esteem and life satisfaction. Further, maximizers were more likely to experience depression and perfectionism. In further arms of the study, they found that maximizers were more likely to compare themselves to others socially, and they were more likely to experience regret.

These results have been echoed and extended over the last two decades. In 2013, Peng3 showed that within a professional context, teams that had satisficing tendencies had higher levels of morale, satisfaction, and better long-term outcomes compared to those with maximizing tendencies. In 2012, Sparks et al. showed that those who attempted to maximize their goals were not only less happy, but were also more reluctant to commit to their choices and goals.4 It is thought that these effects are amplified in digital environments, where the range of options and potential comparisons are multiplied.5

Is maximizing always bad?

Omitted in the previous section of this discussion is an important metric: outcomes. Although the literature seems to fairly consistently show that satisficers show greater well-being and self-esteem at the individual level, the data comparing performance and outcomes paints a slightly different picture. 

Iyengar et al.6 studied university students in the fall of their final year in school. They administered a scale that measured their maximizing tendencies, and subsequently followed them over the course of the year as they searched for jobs. Students with maximizing tendencies secured jobs with 20% higher salaries than those with satisficing tendencies, although maximizers were less satisfied and had a more negative outlook throughout the job-search process than satisficers. 

This result is reproduced in other studies, which show that despite being more indecisive and having worse psychological outcomes, maximizers perform equally well, if not better, than their satisficing peers.

Towards a sustainable mental model

The solution here is not to abandon all our maximizing goals—whether they be in our personal or professional lives or in the context of public policy—and replace them with satisficing ones. Rather, we should get into the habit of interrogating our ambitions, assessing their importance, and making a rational decision about whether or not they should be satisficed or maximized. In fact, this is something we can even attempt to mathematically model if we are so inclined.7 Doing this will not only remove the cognitive stress and load of an excess of maximizing goals, but it will also clear up space for the ones we care most about.

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