The science behind why you make so many snap decisions

One of the universal intricacies of modern living is more choices than ever before. At virtually every turn we’re faced with a wealth of options that would have made our ancestors’ heads spin. 

For instance, everyone is familiar with that fatigued feeling while scrolling through movie or TV options while deciding what to watch. The same can be said for choosing between take-out options for dinner.

All of these possibilities at our fingertips are supposed to make life easier and better, but oftentimes the sheer volume of choices to consider can lead to many pining for the “good old days” of a few VHS tapes and a hand-full of delivery menus.

This modern landscape that we all find ourselves navigating has given rise to two main types of decision-makers: maximizers and satisficers. While maximizers feel compelled to sort through, research, and closely compare all available options when making a choice, satisficers take the opposite approach, opting to make a quick choice and not spend too much time deliberating.

For the most part, people tend to view satisficers as the more sensible consumers. Spending two hours choosing a meal you’ll finish in 25 minutes is hardly conducive to optimal time management.

In a nutshell, satisficers are usually seen as decisive individuals who know what they want while maximizers run the risk of being considered indecisive and easily flustered by many options.

Now, however, a fascinating new study just released by the University at Buffalo has collected tangible, physical evidence suggesting that the opposite holds true. It’s satisficers that feel intimidated and overwhelmed by tons of options, which is why they usually just go with a snap decision. Maximizers, on the other hand, aren’t intimidated by lots of choices, they simply want to make the best decision and don’t mind sifting through details a bit longer.

These findings were produced by recording and analyzing heart and cardiovascular activity among a group of participants while they were faced with a choice between multiple options.

“We might assume maximizers are having a negative experience in the moment, obsessing over the perfect choice. But it appears to be the satisficers – and that might be why they’re satisficing,” says lead study author Thomas Saltsman, a psychology researcher in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, in a release. “We found evidence that compared to maximizers, satisficers exhibited cardiovascular threat responses consistent with evaluating themselves as less capable of managing their choice in the moment.” 

To start researchers gathered a group of 128 volunteers and determined each person’s decision-making style (maximizing or satisficing). Then subjects were shown 15 online profiles for a potential “ideal” friend or partner, complete with biographical/personal details for each profile. Each subject only had three minutes to pick their ideal partner. After that, participants described what led to their decision.

Meanwhile, while subjects were deliberating and making their choices, researchers measured cardiovascular activity and applied those readings to two distinct dimensions of decision-making: task engagement and challenge/threat.

Task engagement is just a fancy way of measuring how invested someone is in a particular activity or moment, and it is measured via heart rate/intensity. Challenge/threat refers to how confident an individual feels during stressful times. This is measured by examining artery activity; when we’re feeling confident our arteries tend to dilate and relax, but if we’re feeling threatened or lacking in confidence arteries tense up and constrict.

While the cardiovascular measurements didn’t indicate much difference between maximizers and satisficers regarding task engagement, that wasn’t the case when it came to challenge/threat.

“What we did find is that satisficers exhibited greater threat,” Saltsman explains. “It presents a novel view of satisficing, one that is more defensive, uncomfortable and reactionary in nature, rather than easy, expedient and carefree.”

In a way, going with a quick uninformed decision acts as a defensive mechanism. If you spend weeks on end choosing what you think is the right computer for your needs, only to discover quickly that you made the wrong choice you have no one to blame but yourself. But, if you just decided to nonchalantly pick up whatever laptop is on sale that particular day, you can at least absolve yourself of the blame if the model turns out to be a dud.

More time spent deliberating means more personal responsibility, and many people aren’t exactly looking for more of that.

“Anyone who has had the experience of maximizing and thinking about the energy and stress saved by satisficing might want to rethink that position,” says study co-author Mark Seery, an associate professor of psychology at UB. “There’s a time and a place for satisficing, but people who do so as a defense against the agony of choice might not be prepared to make critical decisions when they have to.”

“Ultimately, whether we’re the Netflix viewer who swiftly settles for the lame but relatable romantic comedy, or who scrolls endlessly through its bottomless offering list of content options, it’s important to occasionally press the pause button and ask why we are approaching this decision the way we are,” Saltsman concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in Psychophysiology.