Field Guide to the Maximizer

Maximizers aren't content with the good, they want only the best; and they're willing to go through an exhaustive (and exhausting) search to get it.

By Marina Krakovsky, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on October 31, 2011

Latin Name: Selectorus neuroticus

Notable Characteristics: Feels compelled to examine all the options before making a decision. Restlessly searches for a better job, a nicer apartment, a finer mate, or a bigger bargain—or just a more interesting radio program elsewhere on the dial. Frequently beset with regret and self-blame about the road not taken.

Songs & Calls: "Let's see what else is on right now." "It never hurts to look." "I won't settle for second best." "Yes, it's a 23 on Zagat, but what does Yelp say?"

When Alison Christiana was planning her wedding, she turned to, with its vast selection of handcrafted jewelry, to find just the right pair of earrings. But after looking at 50 pages of offerings, the fretful young bride ended up not picking anything. "I felt so anxious and uncomfortable and annoyed that I'd done that," recalls Christiana, who had studied maximizers for her master's thesis at San Francisco State University and identifies herself as one.

Maximizers want to make the best possible decision—or avoid making a bad decision—but in doing so they spend too much time and, research shows, incur hefty psychological costs as well: regret, self-blame, reduced commitment to any choice they do make (including a partner!), and less well-being overall. For example, a study in Psychological Science found that although maximizing university students landed jobs that paid an average of $7,400 more than their classmates', the maximizers ended up less happy with the jobs they got.

Everybody wants to make good choices, of course. But maximizers aren't content with the good; they want only the best, and they're willing to go through an exhaustive (and exhausting) search to get it. The rest of us, knowing that life is short, tend to "satisfice," or settle once we find a house, a job, or a pair of earrings we like.

The availability of options boosts the chances of disappointment; a plethora of choices unconsciously raises expectations, which also boosts the opportunity for regret. So when we're forced to make a decision, we're wise to satisfice, limiting the pool of contenders and lowering the odds of remorse. "A maximizer wants to increase his options to defeat the possibility of making the wrong decision," says Christiana. But this strategy backfires: The more options you view, the more likely you'll be displeased with whatever you choose because, she says, "in your awareness, you have so many more choices."

An Overload of Options

Despite their best efforts, maximizers usually can't look at every possible option anyway. What's more, says Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, "even when all your options are arrayed in front of you, you'll have to make trade-offs because nothing is going to be the best in all respects." One apartment may be larger but has no yard; the highest-paying job may require a relocation. "Whatever trade-offs you make," he adds, "it's easy to imagine you've made the wrong ones."

Maximizers fail to anticipate this consequence of prolonged searching, imagining that they're merely being thorough. But though maximizers are more likely to be perfectionists, on average maximizers are only slightly more conscientious than the rest of us, according to a study led by Christiana. She found that conscientiousness was linked with maximizers' high standards, but wasn't related to their tendency to explore other options and their difficulty in making decisions, two other telltale facets of maximizing.

Instead, the Big Five personality trait they score highest on is neuroticism. It seems that maximizing is defined by how you feel about decision-making, Christiana explains. Maximizers' anxiety may fuel a thought process that makes it hard to make a choice and move on. "Most people come to terms with their decisions, but a maximizer may continue looking at apartments even after signing a lease," says Evan Polman, a visiting assistant professor at New York University.

Searching High and Low

Given the psychological toll of maximizing, maximizers might take solace in believing that their behavior at least yields better objective results. But even that isn't necessarily true, research shows. A working paper by INSEAD professor Neil Bearden and colleagues compared maximizers' predictions of World Cup scores with those made by satisficers. All participants had the same number of options, but maximizers took more time to make the forecasts and expected that, as a result, their predictions would be more accurate than others'. "Surprisingly, they do worse, because they overthink things," Bearden says, noting that focusing on irrelevant details hurts forecast quality. All that information-combing appears to be for naught.

NYU's Polman found a similar pattern in his experiments with the Iowa Gambling Task, a test of decision-making in which participants draw 100 cards from any of four decks with the goal of scoring as many points as they can. Two of the decks are stacked with "good" cards that will yield a positive score, while two decks are bad. After sampling about 50 cards, most players deduce which decks are which, then draw their remaining cards from the good decks. But maximizers keep sampling cards from bad decks, unsure of each deck's quality—and consequently end up with lower scores.

In general, Polman believes, part of maximizers' unhappiness comes from experiencing more bad outcomes along with the good, from more rejections to simply seeing more awful options. "You'll be exposed to a lot of undesirable choices, and that can contaminate the experience of choosing," he says. Unpleasant events loom large in our minds, and thanks to the assimilation effect, browsing less-than-ideal options can make the whole endeavor seem hopeless.

Christiana, the student of maximizing, was able to help Christiana, the dithering bride: She entered a jewelry store, picked a pair of earrings from the manageable selection there, and left happy with her purchase. Her initial experience, though, raises another question: Is the Internet making maximizers' lives worse? Schwartz has no doubt. "If you have to get into your car to get to another store, you may shrug your shoulders and not bother," he says. "But it's so damn easy to check out one more website."

How to Stop Searching

  • Set reasonable time limits for future searches, suggests Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice—say, two hours to book a flight to Europe, choosing the best deal you find within that period.

  • Unless you're truly dissatisfied, stick with the same brands you always buy, especially for small-ticket items like toothpaste or orange juice.

  • Make your decisions irreversible, which has a way of making you like them more. "Being allowed to change our minds actually increases the odds that we will change our minds," Schwartz says.

  • Get in the habit of expressing gratitude for what you already have.