SPP: I kind of want to jump right into it. I was reading a magazine article and somebody mentioned your name and your book, and they briefly described “Maximizers versus Satisfizers”. And a light bulb went off I knew I had to talk to you. I knew I had to read this book because it’s hard to explain how much of a maximizer I am and how difficult it makes my life. So first I was hoping you could kind of explain that theory to us and our listeners and then we could kind of dive into a little more.
Barry: Sure. So the critical distinction is that if you’re a maximizer then only the best will do. You want the best cell phone, the best cell phone plan, the best place to go on vacation, the best job, the best house, etc, etc. And it’s nice to have very high standards but the problem that it creates for people, especially in the modern world is that when there are so many options finding the best is a total nightmare. You can’t look at all the options and so eventually either you don’t pick it all or you pick something, but you’re convinced that if you’d look longer you would have done better.
A satisfizer in contrast is looking for a good enough option, a good enough song, phone plan, vacation, job and so on. And you can have high standards but you don’t need the best. And the benefit of that is that you don’t need to look at every option you just look at options until you find one that meets your standards, whatever they are, then you choose it. So it is less stressful to choose, it’s less defeating to choose. And what we find is that people who we can identify as satisfizers actually are more optimistic, happier about their lives, happier about themselves. They seem generally in much better psychological shape then people who are out for the best. I’m sorry you’re in the latter category.
SPP: Me too. Is there something that lends itself to making you more of a maximizer? I mean I kind of was always raised on the idea that the world is your oyster and you can do anything you want. And sometimes I wonder if that’s kind of bad advice.
Barry: Well I think it is bad advice and parents do it, of course only with the best interest of their kids in mind. And people who teach at institutions like the one I teach at, I’m teaching extremely talented hardworking students, continue. We tell students you can do everything. You can do whatever you want to do we’ll make it easy for you. And some point the world intervenes and says “No you can’t do everything you can only do some things and you’ve got to pick a door to walk through.” And you hear all these other doors slamming shut and it’s really a terrifying prospect.
So I don’t think we do people a favor by giving them the sense that everything is possible, but we don’t know where this comes from. I mean there’s simply no research on how this sort of standards of decision making develop in kids. It seems natural to assume that somehow you get it from your parents, but there are plenty of people where like one sibling will be a total satisfizer and another one will be a total maximizer, and they have the same parents and you just walk away scratching your head and wonder where did all that come from.
SPP: Right that’s a good point. One thing I noticed is the people who follow in their parent’s footsteps, do what their dad did and then their dad did, and things like that oftentimes in my opinion at least seem extremely happy. And I joke with my dad he’s a pilot and sometimes I just say “Dad why didn’t you just say be a pilot. That’s all you can be, that’s all you’re going to be.” Because I’m sure I would have been happy with it.
Barry: Well you know the problem, of course, is that when your parents tell you be a pilot you can be sure that the one thing on earth you’re not going to be is that.
SPP: That’s a really good point.
Barry: You could trick them to find a way to communicate that without coming right out and saying it. SPP: Right.
Barry: But that’s an interesting question. And I don’t know whether there is any systematic evidence that people who in some sense follow in their parents’ footsteps are more satisfied with their lives. It’s quite possible. And it’s not just about careers. The question is do people who live roughly in the communities where they grew up, are they happier than people who wander around looking for the best most exciting place to live? There’s lots of possible avenues for research that would follow-up on your intuition, but as far as I know none of it has been done.
SPP: I read this really interesting study a long time ago that maybe has made my life easier, and it was about how people got to decide whether – you might know it better than me, but whether they eat the same thing at a restaurant their favorite restaurant, or they choose in advance if they sample something different every time. And in the end it turned out that people that ate the same thing they know they enjoyed were happier than the people who tried something different each time. Have you ever heard of that study?
Barry: I have not heard of that study but it seems to me to be perfectly plausible. I myself, I mean it’s sort of embarrassing, first I live in the heart of a downtown part of the city so there are a million restaurants within a few blocks of where I live. My wife and I go to the same small number of places that we like, and when I go there, especially me my wife is less true of, I always order the same damn thing. So people ask me, well is this good, is this good? Is this good? And I say “Well actually I don’t know.”
SPP: Yes see that’s the way to do it in my opinion that is.
Barry: Well maybe but the world is there’s all these wonderful experiences out there in the world that people like me don’t even try. And some of them may turn out to be terrible, but some of them really might be wonderful.
SPP: While we’re on this kind of subject of choices and everything, I think it was in your Ted Talk that I saw one thing really, really jumped out at me. And it was about opportunity cost the way you described opportunity cost. And I’d like you to go into it. I just want to make sure you cover the point about how when we know they’re other options available. It’s easier for us to see what would have been better in those options but not what would have been worst.
Barry: One of the problems that we have in living in a world with so many options is that most of the decisions we make, especially the important ones, they’re going to be multiple dimensions that matter to us. And it’s extremely unlikely that we’re going to find something that’s the best in every way. So when you’re choosing a vacation you may have to make a tradeoff between being able to have gorgeous weather and being exposed to wonderful culture, eating in great restaurants and being able to hike in mountains. There’s no one place to have it all.
And the problem is that when you choose a place, even if you choose the right place, you can spend your time at that place thinking about all the wonderful things that you passed up in other places. So life is tradeoffs. Tradeoffs are inevitable and if you spend your time doing one thing thinking about all that you have traded off in the other things you’re going to end up pretty miserable with what you’ve chosen, even if you’ve chosen the right thing. And the same thing is true when it comes to choosing a job right, there’s location, they’re the colleagues, there’s how interesting the work itself is, the opportunities for advancement, the salary.
Again it’s extremely unlikely that there’s going to be one job that’s the best in every way, but the more jobs you consider the more salient you’ll be all the things that you have passed up and the jobs you didn’t take. Nowadays jobs are so hard to come by people probably feel lucky to have any job, but things weren’t that way five years ago and presumably someday things will go back to being somewhat less precarious and people will find themselves with choices among jobs. And we found, we did a study of college seniors looking for jobs, and we found that maximizers got better jobs than satisfizers did, and they felt worse.
SPP: Wow that’s pretty interesting. And I wanted to step along those lines too and ask you, one of the things that you say for making good decisions is to identify your goal or goals. Do you think that people either have too broad of goals or a specific goal in mind, especially for the maximizers? What do you tend to see in terms of their goals?
Barry: Well I think what most people do is they will identify one or two things they care about. I mean think about buying a car, let’s say you care about fuel efficiency and you care about reliability, those are the things that matter most to you. The other stuff you don’t know what you think. So what you’ll do is you’ll say okay I want a fuel efficient car that doesn’t breakdown. And I’ll go and look at cars like that and let what’s available in the marketplace tell me how I feel about other things, like the nature of the upholstery, the styling, the sound system, and so on.
So what happens of course is that you go out into the marketplace and you discover that there are 10, 50, 100 cars that are fuel efficient and reliable. And now you’re going to let the marketplace help you figure out what else you care about, and that’s when people get themselves into trouble. So the advice I give people is this sort of joke, don’t just do something sit there. The first thing you should do when you’re making a decision is sit down and asks yourself what matters. And if you can make a list, the more detail the better, the more easily you’ll be able to find something that meets your goals.
Most of us don’t do that. It’s hard to do, we’re kind of lazy, and we figure I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it. And again in the world we live in seeing it is just going to make you more confused not more certain about what it is you want.
Barry: So yes I think people are not good at formulating goals in a detailed enough way that they’ll actually help when the time comes to make a decision.
SPP: Now do you have any advice for people that have problems formulating those goals, especially when it comes to choosing a career or job. That’s kind of a hard thing to sit down and make that list of things that you’re really trying to get out of it.
SPP: Because the one thing that people say is “I just want to be happy at my job.” Barry: Which is remarkably unhelpful.
SPP: Right exactly.
Barry: Well I have advice to give but I think its advice that anyone can give themselves and it’s much easier to say than it is to follow, and that is to make sure that you keep the main thing the main thing. It’s not enough to list all of the things that will be nice in a job, because you’re not going to find a job that has all those things. So the question is what’s most important to you? And you have to be willing to go or reduce the set of possibilities so that everyone in every possibility in this set gives you what’s most important to you. And after that you can just sort of use the other features of jobs as tiebreakers.
So if it’s really important to you to stay close to your family. You have a very close family you don’t want to be half a country away, so you decide I’m going to look for a job that’s in the New York Metropolitan area. Now that doesn’t restrict the choice all that much but it certainly is a narrower choice than if you’re looking anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world. So people have to ask themselves what’s most important and then act in a way that’s consistent with the values that they’ve articulated. As I say, this is obvious everyone knows this but people tend not to do it.
SPP: Yes I like what you were saying about the fact pick one and then kind of let the other things happen. And I know we keep harping on the job thing but that’s kind of what sparked this podcast was just trying to figure out the path and life and everything. So in terms of this conversation it really makes a lot of sense. I don’t know I go back to the quote that “A luxury once tasted becomes necessity.” And I feel like when you have a good thing going and then it goes away you reminisce about the good times, only the good things, and you want that back but you can’t really get it, you know what I mean.
Barry: Well you said a couple of things there that are all true. One is that losses really hurt so if you have something and it gets taken away that’s much more painful than never having had it for most of us. And I think we make lots of decisions life with an eye toward avoiding that feeling. The other thing is I don’t think it’s quite true that luxury once tasted becomes necessity, but it’s certainly true that luxury after awhile becomes necessity.
SPP: Oh good.
Barry: So the trick I think and I actually say this in my book, the trick is to make really extraordinary experiences rare. And just to give you an example of what I mean, suppose you’re making a half million dollars a year, so you like to drink wine and you’re in an income bracket now where you can spend $30 or $40 dollars a bottle of wine. What’s going to happen after awhile is that that $30 or $40 dollar bottle of wine is going to taste just like the $8 dollar wine tasted when you were getting your MBA. So you’re now spending ten times as much but you’re not getting anymore satisfaction than you did as a graduate student. However no matter what you can afford, if you make the really expensive high quality wine a treat it will remain a treat. So you’ll get more pleasure out of the occasional really fine bottle of wine than you’ll get when it becomes sort of your standard dinner accompaniment.
SPP: I like that.
Barry: So keeping really great experiences rare is a way to continue to derive satisfaction from having those experiences.
SPP: Now that’s tough don’t you think because…
SPP: …obviously the great experiences you want to keep having them. So it’s only natural to be like I’ll just do it again, I’ll just do it again.
Barry: Yes but it’s just like close to an iron law of human beings that we adapt to things. So it’s only natural to want to keep having that great experience again and again. The problem is it’s going to stop feeling like a great experience.
Barry: You’re going to need a $70 dollar bottle of wine and then $100 dollar bottle of wine. And again if you have infinite money no harm, although it may seem a little weird to be spending quite so much money on a bottle of wine, but most of us are not in that position. So the trick is to continue to get real pleasure out of these experiences and the way to do that is to make them special.
SPP: That’s very interesting, especially with the current state of the economy for America right now where there’s a lot of people that are living well below the means that they were living before.
SPP: And I really wonder, in terms of happiness, have they been able to adjust.
Barry: Right. And the answer to that I think at the moment is no, but if the downturn lasts long enough I think people will, most people, will establish a new kind of baseline, a new kind of standard. They’ll get used to living the way they currently are forced to live. And the upside of that is that these experiences that had been routine in their more affluent days, and our now not routine, will give them satisfaction again. You know you take a huge salary hit and you go from buying $40 dollar wine to buying $10 dollar wine and five years from now that $40 dollar bottle of wine is really going to taste fabulous again.
SPP: What is your estimation in term of time? How long this takes for somebody to reach that point?
Barry: Don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think that it’s simply as a matter of individual psychology. No one is willing to say, none of the political leaders in this society, are willing to say that this isn’t the new normal. So we are being encouraged to think about the downturn as temporary as something from which we will recover. And what that does I suspect is that it gets people to fight against getting used to things as they currently are.
So I don’t think we know how long it takes and I don’t think that sort of surrounding culture is going to do anything to get us sort of to make peace with our current economic situation. And I should also point out that we know two things about what determines well being that matter lot in connection with the downturn. One is that security is really important and quite apart from the dropping standard of living what has been threatened in the last few years for a lot of people is their sense of security, of predictability, that the big things in the future will be taken care.
Second is that unemployment is a disaster. Apart from the financial consequences it’s a psychological disaster to lose your job it’s something people really don’t recover from for a long, long time. While it might be nice for us to get used to the downturn so that we can once again get pleasure out of things that have just become necessities, on the other hand the price for this downturn and a psychological price for this downturn for a lot of people is very substantial.
SPP: One thing there that it makes me think of, and I know you discuss in your book and in your Ted Talk and everything, is there’s kind of a middle ground. There’s two little choice and too much choice.
SPP: And in this same idea that we’ve been talking about of overindulgence versus under indulgence, I kind of compare it to three years ago I was driving like a $30,000 car, now I’m driving about a $3 dollar car. And as nice as it would be to say “Oh I’m cool with the car I drive now”, I’m not. But I want mind driving somewhere in the middle.
SPP: Just a Civic or something in the future you know. So kind of talk about that middle ground area I guess.
Barry: Right. Well we don’t know what the middle ground is for people, but what we do know is that what we define as the middle ground each of us has a lot to do with the way in which we anchor our evaluations. So if you’re driving a heap right now, a car that a few years ago you wouldn’t have been caught dead in, is now going to seem extravagant.
Barry: And so the middle ground is going to be a Civic, but a few years ago the middle ground might have been a Lexus. So middle ground keeps moving and each of us as a society we are not prepared to say “Well people need this but they don’t need that. So if they want that that’s their problem.” We seem much more inclined to let each citizen decide for him or herself what’s valuable and how valuable. That’s why we like to market so much.
Barry: I don’t mean the stock market I mean general market. SPP: Right.
Barry: It’s a way to let everybody get what they want, what they thinks’ important. And we tend to be unwilling to look at somebody else and say “Your values are just completely misplaced. That’s not worth value as you’re giving it. You’re superficial you’re trivial, blah, blah, blah.” We may think those thoughts but we tend not to say them out loud. So there’s no official idea in this country about what the middle ground is. And I think it would help a lot if there were.
Barry: But I don’t exactly know how to get a public conversation started about how much is enough.
SPP: Yes. The marketing gurus of the world wouldn’t enjoy that.
Barry: That’s right and that’s the other problem, even if we got a conversation started you’ve got I don’t know how many billions of dollars a year spent trying to convince us that whatever we think is enough isn’t.
SPP: I have to dedicate some time to this and then we’ll let you go I know you’ve got places to be. But in the final chapter of your book you suggest some possible coping strategies. And I know we’ve kind of talked about them in terms of have the luxuries come fewer and far between and setting goals. I need any amount of advice that you could possibly give to kind of move from maximizer to satisfizer to look for things that will do rather than the perfect thing. I need the golden nugget right here.
Barry: Yep. Well the only advice that I have to give on that score is that nobody that I’ve ever met is a maximizer about everything. And what that means is that you are already satisfizing when it comes to some decisions that you make.
SPP: That’s true.
Barry: You may buy the store brand paper towels you don’t give it a thought, whatever it is. So you already know how to satisfize. And the trick is simply to take a skill, a decision making style that you already have and apply it in other areas of your life where you currently don’t apply it. And the reason why this is important is that it is usually substantially harder to learn how to do a new thing than it is to transfer a skill you’ve already got to a new area. So everybody knows how to do it. Everyone knows how to settle for good enough. And the challenge is simply to scrutinize the parts of your life where good enough does the trick and then use those strategies that you use in those areas of your life in other areas of your life where you torture yourself.
Barry: Now I don’t want to make it seem like this is trivially easy to do, it isn’t. Most certainly unless you’re willing to be discipline and stick with it you’ll be incredibly frustrated because you just know that if you spent another three days online you’ll find the perfect toaster oven. If you force yourself to go through the discomfort of settling for good enough one of the things you’ll learn is that good enough is virtually always good enough. It’ll get easier and easier to satisfy, you’ll do it more and more often, then eventually it will become simply your decision making habit. So again I don’t know that this advice will be helpful to people, but I would say the trick is to scrutinize the decisions that you make weren’t good enough as all you’re looking for, and then use that strategy in other areas of your life.
SPP: Well I love it because I know it’s true. I’ve done it. I’m telling you I’ve struggled over electronics, just picked one and then it ends up working and you don’t give another thought. And so that’s why I knew I was like I got to talk to him because I know this is true. And your book, again the “Paradox of Choice”, incredible book. I recommend everybody to check it out. And your Ted Talk was fascinating. So I really appreciate you coming on the show. And keep writing books because I want to keep reading them I guess this is what I’m saying.
Barry: Well thank you. Thank you so much you’re very kind.
SPP: All right Barry, well thank you very much and best of luck to you in the future.