Satisfice Yourself? The Art of Settling
By Heath Shive
I was at a wedding and the couple had written their own vows. The couple said all the clichés, like “I’m marrying my best friend” (blech) and the (ugh) worst of the worst, “You are my soulmate.”
Soulmate? If there’s any word in the English language that American romance has to apologize for…it is soulmate.
When I talk to long-term couples, I sometimes ask how they met each other. Overwhelmingly, they met in either high school, college, or at work. Predictable.
Yet when I hear the word soulmate, I hear someone implying that their romantic happiness was the work of Cosmic Forces – like Fate or the Universe had a hand in it.
Most couples have predictable backstories. Predictable wedding traditions. They get married at predictable ages.
And now I realize this could be a good thing!
It might just be, just maybe, the wisest choice of all.
Don’t believe me?
To the science!
Bounded Rationality, or “Nobody’s Perfect”
The word “settling” has a bad reputation. To settle – to choose the less than ideal option – is to imply a kind of defeat.
But in all actuality, settling for “less than the best” – whether a purchase, property, occupation, or marriage mate – may be a very wise choice.
The famous economist Herbert Simon said so. And he won a Nobel Prize in Economics for it.
A Nobel Prize…for “settling”?
Yes! For most of the 20th century, social science (including economics) assumed that people acted rationally with their decisions. Economists thought of humanity collectively as a rational thinker, like a Homo economicus if you will.
But…we’re not rational. Actually we’re more irrational. That’s not to say that we’re crazy (it just looks that way).
But on the average, humans do not rely on rationality and logic to make many of our biggest decisions. We rely instead on emotion, conformity, tradition, prestige, peer pressure, or even neurosis.
Even when we choose to be rational, humans have limits.
Herbert Simon called this “bounded rationality” - the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the how easily the problem can be measured, the limits of their ability to understand, the time available, etc.
Simply put, you will never have the time to examine all possible options, to examine all the data, and sometimes, you don’t even know what the root problem might be.
So – as we say in America – you have “to wing it.” You do the best with what you have, whether you’re prepared or not.
Simon once made an analogy. Suppose you had to sew something, but you needed a needle that was at least 4 inches long and must have a needle’s eye of at least 3 millimeters. Then you’re shown a pile of 100,000 needles ranging in size from 1 inch to 6 inches long, and needle’s eyes from 1 millimeter to 5 millimeters wide.
Will you examine all 100,000 needles? You would probably “settle” for the first needle that meets the standard.
Satisficing: The Art of Settling
Herbert Simon elaborated on his theory. Basically, he said that there are two kinds of choosers – the maximizers and the satisficers.
Maximizers are people who will not settle for anything but the best. They put enormous amounts of research, effort, and patience into the decision before they make their move.
Then there are the satisficers – mixing “satisfaction” with “sufficing”. These people explore their options until “an acceptability threshold is met.” In other words, they settle.
There is nothing wrong with either style!
It all depends on what you really want in this life.
But maximizers may never find that ideal solution. They may never have enough time, resource, or options.
They may never find “the one” or their “soulmate.”
That’s the price they pay.
Satisficers can enjoy something sooner. Get the result faster. Conserve their time and resource. But they will also have to compromise more. Tolerate more imperfection. Maybe even suffer more consequence.
Or maybe get a divorce.
That’s the price they pay.
It reminds me of something that I heard on an episode of the TV show Community (Season 6, Ep. 12).
It’s you against the world and you will not win. But until then, you make your own moves.
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Lies of Reputation: Welfare and the Need for Esteem
By Heath Shive
In 2006, two researchers named Cesar Martinelli and Susan W. Parker published a study on the Mexican welfare program Opportunidades.
Martinelli and Parker analyzed data from more than one hundred thousand applicants (about 10% of the applicants in the year 2002).
Not surprising, some of the applicants lied.
What is surprising is how they lied and why.
And it will either move your heart to disdain or pity…or both.
Those Damn Cheaters
The Opportunidades program has a cash benefit that is equal to about 25% of the average applicant’s annual expenditures. There’s an obvious economic incentive for people to be on this program…and also incentive to lie to get on the program.
Applicants had to answer questions about the amount of property they owned and the quality of their home. Many people lied about certain “luxury” items they had.
For example, 83% of the applicants who had cars lied and said that they didn’t have cars. Also, 73% of the applicants who owned a phone said they didn’t.
They obviously were lying on the questionnaire. They wanted to look poorer in order to receive the benefits.
But some applicants lied in a more heart-wrenching way.
Those Poor People
Some people lied to look poorer than they actually were.
But some applicants lied to save their reputation - they lied about how badly off they were!
Of the applicants who claimed to have a toilet in the house, 39% didn’t have a toilet at all!
Also, 32% of the applicants lied and claimed to have ordinary tap water – when they didn’t have tap water at all!
Some applicants were much worse off than they pretended to be. They were lying to save face during the interviews.
They were so ashamed, they claimed to have basic necessities that they couldn’t afford.
The Social Need to Save Face
Economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner wrote about this study in their book “When to Rob a Bank.”
They claimed that the Martinelli-Parker study showed two insights.
First, we should not underestimate the lies people will say to protect their reputation. As Dubner writes: “Of the many reasons that people lie…the lie of reputation is the most interesting – as opposed to a lie to gain advantage, to avoid trouble, to get out of an obligation, etc.”
People may lie about how badly they are doing because they don’t want your pity or condescension.
Second, the study also shows researchers to naturally distrust self-reported data. Some will lie to gain advantage, while others will lie to save face and spare themselves shame.
There is a general disdain by society's majority for those on poverty assistance programs - which is odd, because most people take "subsidies" in many forms from tax breaks, tax cuts, student and farmer aid, etc.
But poverty assistance - like poverty itself - carries extreme social stigma. We need to realize that their economic need does not preclude their need for self-esteem and dignity.
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Levitt, Steven D. & Stephen J. Dubner. When to Rob a Bank. William Morrow, 2015.
Martinelli, Cesar, and Susan W. Parker. “Deception and Misreporting in a Social Program,” Centro de Investigacion Economica discussion paper 06-02, June 2006.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.