Some Good News for People Who Have a Hard Time Making Decisions

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You know the saying (and the old Selena Gomez song), “Live like there’s no tomorrow?” Yeah, not me. I mean, I’ve heard it often enough, and seen the sentiment shared on social media plenty, but I don’t think I could truthfully say I’ve ever really lived by it. I’m what’s called a decision-making maximizer, which means, essentially, that “tomorrow” is all I think about. When I have to make a decision, I’ll keep going back and forth between all possible choices until I’m confident I’ve picked the best one, because I want to believe I will be better off in the future than I am today.

At the opposite end of the decision-making spectrum are “satisficers” — the people who, when making a decision, go with the first choice or option they perceive as good enough. Historically, research has shown that satisficers tend to be happier and less stressed than their overcautious, overanalytical counterparts, which isn’t especially surprising — it would make sense that people who are more easily satisfied with their decisions are satisfied more often. But maximizers may have just gotten their vindication: A new study, recently published in the Journal of Individual Differences, challenges the long-held assumption that satisficers are better off.

The study authors hypothesized that decision-making maximizing is correlated with future-oriented thinking, which, in turn, is associated with positive future-oriented incomes. “When setting the standards for their decisions, maximizers are more likely to consider the future because their current decisions have to meet their higher present and future standards,” they wrote. And because an increased ability to accurately predict (and prepare for) the future has been linked to higher academic achievement, better financial decisions, and decreased risk-taking behavior, they argued, it follows that maximizing should be linked to those same outcomes.

To test their idea, the researchers first measured subjects’ predilection toward both decision-making maximizing and future-oriented thinking by asking them how much they agreed with statements like “I never settle for second best” and “I consider how things might be in the future, and try to influence those things with my day to day behavior,” respectively. According to lead study author Xiaoyuan Zhu, a psychology graduate student at the University of Connecticut, this method of self-reporting works in studies like this one because most people are generally pretty familiar with their own decision-making styles, and therefore tend to describe them accurately.

Researchers also measured the degree to which subjects practiced “temporal discounting,” or the tendency to value smaller, immediate gains over larger delayed ones (like choosing $50 today over a hundred bucks a year from now). The participants were also asked to give a ballpark figure for both their present salary and their accumulated life savings, and to describe their intent to save money in the future. “Behavioral intention is typically a good predictor of actual behavior,” says Zhu. It sounds a little hard to believe, but it turns out that most people are true to their word, at least in this area: The researchers found that intention to save is associated with more actual lifetime savings.

They also found support for their other hypotheses: As they suspected, there was indeed a significant correlation between decision-making maximizing and future-oriented thinking, which suggests that the consideration of future consequences plays a large role in maximizers’ higher standards. As a result, maximizers save more money.

Notably, and perhaps unfortunately for people like me, this study doesn’t actually prove that maximizers are happier people than satisficers — it just suggests that maximizing can lead to more positive outcomes than previously suggested, and one of them is likely to be a healthier savings account.

Still, I think my fellow maximizers and I can call this one a win. Previous definitions of decision-making maximizing required not only high standards and a willingness to keep searching for alternatives, but also “decision difficulty,” meaning that to be a maximizer, a person also had to find decision-making stressful and difficult. Zhu and her colleagues argued for a narrower — and nicer — definition: “One should be unwilling to reduce one’s standards when making decisions, and should want the best option,” she says, but you don’t have to suffer to be a maximizer. And if you do suffer a little in your future-dwelling utilitarianism, you should also know that it may pay off down the road. In the financial realm, at least, “It pays to hold out for the best decision option,” Zhu says.

Nonetheless, the researchers warned that it is possible to be too forward-thinking: “When focused strictly on the future, decision-makers may delay or ignore more pressing immediate needs,” they wrote. Picture a dehydrated woman loitering in front of a gas station’s wall-to-wall refrigerator full of appealing, ice-cold beverages, and you’ll get the idea. At some point, for her own good, she has to make a decision. Being a maximizer may have its advantages, but we’re not totally off the hook.

Good News for People Who Have a Hard Time Making Decisions