Life can be viewed as a vast continuum of decision points. Each one, no matter how small, has the potential to influence our future outcomes. And though we’d love to get them all right, complexity makes that goal impossible. It’s much easier to simplify the process and aim for something acceptable.
But rather than give up our ability to make decisions, we can choose to view them through a different lens. Doing so lets us embrace the power of options in areas where they have the potential to really make a difference.
Why we settle for less
In psychology, the desire to maximize decisions is known as “rational choice theory.” It holds that people make decisions that are consistently in line with their preferences. By exercising our best judgment, we can maximize the value of our options.
In practice, however, these assumptions prove unrealistic. In any aspect of life, we rarely have all the options presented before us. Our information is imperfect, thereby making an optimal decision impossible.
More often, people tend to behave as “satisficers.” Rather than seeking to achieve perfect satisfaction, we set a threshold of acceptable value. Then we settle upon the first option that meets or exceeds this threshold.
Such behavior represents an acknowledgment of the reality that we can’t always maximize the value of the options at our disposal. It also appeals to us because of its simplicity.
Making choices can be difficult, especially if there are many similar options. Streamlining our decisions by narrowing down the range of choices to a handful of well-differentiated contenders helps to lessen our cognitive burden.
A refuge from complexity
Choosing not to maximize our options can be a powerful heuristic in many aspects of life. It helps to reduce the complexity inherent in decisions, ranging from personal consumption to career- or life-changing options.
When desktop computing wars were a thing, consumers could choose between Windows and Mac OS. Today, it’s between iOS and Android. To the average consumer, rather than any specs or features, familiarity with the operating system could settle the question of which new device to buy.
Similar patterns appear when considering even heftier decisions. A new job offer might call for several criteria to be evaluated. But we tend to value one above the rest. It could be the increase in our paycheck, the chance to relocate to a more attractive city, or the elevation in status perception we get from a fancy job title.
Like any heuristic, though, the choice to be a “satisficer” has its limits. Taken too far, it loses its value. And in modern times, that’s happening more often than we might care to admit.
Reclaiming your power of choice
Most people are dealing with a lot of stress in today’s world. The pandemic alone has inflicted uncertainty on a global scale. But even in previous years, the rapid pace of change was already making decisions highly complicated.
In an episode of The Good Place, this complexity is highlighted by the fact that buying a tomato can help land you in the show’s equivalent of Hell. Said tomato could be sourced through exploitative labor, farmed with the use of pesticides, and delivered by emitting fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
It’s absurd to expect people to process such complexity all the time. And it’s present in every aspect of our lives. As a result, we increasingly shut down our ability to choose.
That becomes a problem when we miss out on options that could vastly improve our lives. And the solution may come from the unlikely field of risk management.
Author Nassim Taleb has made a career out of studying the effects of the unpredictable. In his works, he advocates that people should minimize their exposure to drastic, adverse effects. At the same time, they can benefit from increased exposure to highly beneficial events.
This advice was originally meant to apply to investments. And it has certainly been proven (by the author, no less) to be an effective way of growing one’s portfolio.
But it can be taken further and applied to adult life in general. When faced with a decision, think in terms of time. Does this have the power to change my life in some unexpected, hugely positive way? Or are the positives mostly in the mediocre range?
This lens can be used to evaluate both mundane and major decisions. Will you get value out of a laborious home remodel over the years, compared to simple but effective retractable awnings that let you enjoy the outdoors on demand? How about quitting your job in order to start a business?
Amass your options in areas that have the potential to turn into ‘happy accidents’ with a little upfront cost. Over time, as they lead to beneficial opportunities, you can cash in for considerable returns.