Why we satisfice and
when and how to improve it.

Satisfice definition

To satisfice is to choose, not the best option, but the first option that is good enough.

It seems that more options are not always better. We get to the stage where there are so many options and so many variables it becomes too much. So we give up and grab the first thing that will get the job done.

Very often we simply don't have the time for "optimising" or "maximizing". It used to be thought that we were rational creatures and made the best, or optimal, choice every time. This is the idea behind the rational decision-making models.

But sometimes, there may be huge costs involved in gathering information about all possible options. Costs in terms of time, money and effort.


Bounded rationality

In 1956, Herbert Simon, an American social psychologist, suggested that we work in a bounded rationality, which means our rationality is limited by the information available to us (it's not possible to have ALL the relevant information), the limits of our thinking and the time we have available to make a decision. He said that we don't always optimise, what we do instead is satisfice.

The word satisfice is a combination of satisfying and sacrificing, the idea being that we choose a satisfactory option while sacrificing potentially better ones. Or it's a combination of satisfy and suffice. It satisfies our criteria and suffices to get the result.


Satisfice vs optimize

There is much debate about satisficing and optimising with, for example, a redefinition of satisficing, where it is said to be an optimisation where every cost is taken into account, including the cost of gathering all the information, any risks involved and the cost of comparing alternatives! This means that any option chosen by satisficing is justified because it's not worth spending any more in finding alternative solutions. And this means it's also an optimisation!

Unless you are into decision theory, the important thing for you to consider is

  • How much do you want the 'best' solution?
  • What are the difficulties in achieving this 'best' solution?


Why we do it

Simon suggests there are several reasons:

  • We are not particularly good at working out probabilities. How many sure things have you known to go wrong?!
  • We find it difficult to quantify choices and so picking the best can be a chore.
  • We usually don't have all the information we would need to evaluate outcomes precisely.
  • Our memories play tricks on us in that recent information is more fresh in our minds than something from several years ago that is more relevant.

What to do?

In many situations, we don't need to do anything different. Satisficing eases our way through life. We're not subject to paralysis by analysis. You don't need a decision matrix grid to choose between white chocolate and dark chocolate when somebody offers you the box!

However, for more important decisions it's probably useful to set the bar a bit higher than "good enough". You don't want to choose something that is good enough right now, but is going to cause even more trouble next week.

In stressful situations, this may be particularly relevant. Something that eases the stress right now may be good enough right now, but may not be good enough to ease the stress tomorrow or the day after.

You may need to think bigger picture or more long-term and find a solution that's good enough for this new frame.


Gary Klein

Gary Klein's recognition primed decision-making model is an example of satisficing and Klein says that to optimize is difficult and takes a long time. To satisfice is more efficient.

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