Tuesday, May 27, 2008

(I Can Get Some) Satisfice-ion

My friend LH was getting ready for a big trip with the family and, three days out, she was feeling overwhelmed about the massive amount of work it would take to get from point a to point DC. “I have this vision of all these things I need to do," she said, "but of course I’ll eventually give it up and start satisficing.”

You say that like it’s a bad thing, I said, surprised.


Sometimes I feel like what remains of my undergraduate degree is an unwavering, insane loyalty to an often-mediocre football team; some great friends; and a pillowcase full of disconnected intellectual trivia (“these fragments I have shored against my ruins” -- see what I mean?). But one idea I take out my bag, often, is Herb Simon’s concept of satisficing. Simon coined the term as a combination of satisfy and suffice -- to satisfice, then, is to quickly make a decision that meets your bottom-line criteria rather than agonizing over making the perfect decision.

Here’s some thoughts on the matter from the author of a blog (and book) called The Happiness Project :
Satisficers (yes, satisfice is a word, I checked) are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.

Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice.

Most people are a mix of both approaches. For example, one friend was a satisficer about renting an apartment, but a maximizer about buying an apartment...
In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice. (emphasis added)

In the context of cancer treatment, I think striving for maximization makes sense. Lots of studies indicate that better (eg, more experienced) surgeons get better margins. One recent non-sarcoma example that leaps to mind is a Sloan-Kettering doctor’s paper that found the long-term outcome of prostate surgery was strongly influenced by the surgeon's experience. Choosing third- or fourth-line chemotherapy for metastatic epithelioid sarcoma is by necessity an exercise in satisficing -- perfect information just isn’t out there -- but I do believe in consulting with at least a couple of experts to make the best possible decision, even if they disagree for largely “arbitrary” reasons, as one physician told me.

Living with cancer is different. Where I really try to satisfice, to suffice, to satisfy, is in how I allocate my time. I rarely have the energy to, say, maximize the tasks accomplished on an outing, or play every game my children desire during a particular afternoon, but I try to make the most satisfactory choices I can, and get on with life instead of feeling bad about the things I might do, I used to do, I dream of doing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the shreds that are left of one's college days (30-year reunion coming up in '09), Barry Schwartz was a psych professor of mine at Swarthmore (and he's still there). This "satisfice" concept is very useful.