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Satisficer

The idea here is the paradox of choice.

The classic story is the one about the donkey which was placed exactly halfway between two bales of hay. Unable to decide which one of the two bales was the more enticing, the poor animal starved to death. The modern equivalent is supermarket shelves laden with two dozen varieties of tomato sauce or twenty sorts of bread or shops with dozens of styles of trainers or jeans. The burden of having to decide among myriad options has been shown to leave people dissatisfied, stressed and miserable about the choice they finally make — perhaps one of the others was better?

A satisficer, on the other hand, is content with the idea that good is good enough. If the pair of jeans fits and wears well or the tomato sauce tastes pretty good then that’s fine. Another choice might have been better but almost certainly not so much better that the hassle of testing all the possibilities was worth the time and trouble.

Though the word is often applied to the consumerist lifestyle in developed countries, the American economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon coined it more than half a century ago in more general terms. His original creation was satisfice, a conflation of satisfy and suffice, which appeared first in an article in 1956. He extended his ideas the following year in his books Administrative Behavior and Models of Man.

His discussion was directed at all forms of decision making, in which he argued that people showed what he called bounded rationality. Contrary to the conventional view of economists, people don’t seek to maximise the benefit they get from some course of action because in most cases they don’t have all the facts or too much information would overwhelm them.

The best situation may not be, as might be thought, to have no choice at all (which brings problems of its own), but to have a relatively limited range of choices that makes it feasible to select the most appropriate.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Feb. 2016

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 6 February 2016.