Satisficing vs. Optimizing, and Understanding the Usefulness of Both

Hi friends!

Today I want to talk about satisficing vs. optimizing. Yes, satisficing is a word. Sort of.

This is a subject that was inspired by a talk I saw at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) this year. The talk was by Tynan Syltvester, of RimWorld fame (pretty famous and successful indie game). One of the things he brings up in his conference talk, on the subject of task selection, is the idea of satisficing vs. optimizing.

2017-03-28 Balance

Satisficing means to choose the first acceptable choice which matches the criteria. The word combines “satisfying” with “sufficing”, in a tongue-twistery way that second-language English speakers would probably be unhappy with. The term was created by Herbert A. Simon, a psychologist, sociologist, computer scientist, and all-around genius in the cognitive psych world.

Optimizing, on the other hand, means choosing the best possible choice with respect to those criteria after looking at all of the options (within reason, usually). This word is less confusing sounding, and comes from the Latin word ‘optimus’, which means ‘best’.

Wordy trickery aside, in the task-selection world for work purposes, it’s important to be able to optimize. The idea is to be able to choose the best option when considering added value vs. cost vs. whatever else you need to keep in mind in your industry or for your product. But I want to talk a bit more about life and a bit less about business here.

2017-03-28 Decision

I’m an optimizer. This isn’t something I necessarily put a label on before hearing this talk, but it’s very true. I like to know that I’ve checked all of the possible options before making a decision. When it comes to important life decisions, I’m proud of this trait because it means I rarely make hasty decisions that I regret. On the other hand, when it comes to choosing a soup or salad with my meal, it’s unnecessarily stressful. I’ve always been bad a small, meaningless decisions because I always think about what I might miss out on.

What I’ve come to realize over the last few years, and this thought is being reinforced by the understanding of things like the comparison between satisficing and optimizing, is that sometimes it’s better to just choose the option that’s good enough for my needs and be happy with it, especially if it’s more or less inconsequential in the long run. If the T-shirt I want is overpriced by $3, or I didn’t check the reviews of the restaurant to make sure we’re going to the best one in a new area in town, the world won’t end. I don’t need to compare price-to-value for the $3 difference on a shirt, and I can be happy so long as the food I’ve gotten is good, regardless of whether or not there’s a better place for the same price nearby.

2017-03-28 Puppy

Another way that understanding this distinction in decision-making helps is in understanding why people choose the things they choose. A good personal example of this is the Apple vs. PC debate. Being a PC person, I could never understand why people would choose to buy Apple computers (or products in general). I just didn’t get it. I looked at the specs, looked at the price, looked at the performance. There’s no question that, looking at the components and functionality and price of a computer, one could rationalize getting a Mac over a PC.

But, before you start yelling at me, hear me out. I now understand the distinction between satisficing and optimizing, and the choice to go with “the thing that just works” is no longer such a mystery. Without labeling this, I’ve had these thoughts for many years. As a baseline, Mac computers just work. They do what you need them to do, they fit all of the criteria, and they can’t do more. PC computers, often, take more work before they do what you want them to do, but they have the potential to do much more for the same price. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people who took the time to research different PC specs and who purchased something with more potential don’t use all of the things they’ve optimized for. So depending on the type of person you are, you might simply choose the option that “works right out of the box” and that doesn’t make you have to think too much.

2017-03-28 Grandpa

This brings me to a major point, which is that I believe that the majority of people are satisficers. That doesn’t make them bad people, I just don’t think I’m one of them. For most people, they need the right thing for the right purpose, and beyond that it doesn’t really matter. They won’t spend as much time looking into details before making decisions about material things, and that might even extend to immaterial things too. What that leads to, I might hypothesize, is a simpler but more satisfied existence than someone who tries to optimize for everything and might not be able to appreciate the simple things without questioning the “what if”.

This is starting to ramble on and get introspective so I’ll cut it off here, but I think it’s useful to bring this distinction to the front of your mind once in a while to better understand why you make some of the decisions you make, and why other people might make decisions that you don’t understand.