A Strategy for Making Decisions You Won’t Regret

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It’s finally close enough to lunchtime that it’s socially acceptable to order food, and you’re starving, and all morning you’ve been hankering for a grilled-cheese sandwich. And hey, lucky you, you also happen to know that there are roughly a zillion places within delivery distance of your office that make grilled-cheese sandwiches. The only question is, how do you pick one?

It’s an easier task for some people than for others. As Science of Us has previously explained, psychology research generally divides people into two different categories based on their decision-making style. On one hand, there are the “satisficers,” who stop mulling over their options as soon as they find one that meets all the necessary criteria. Cheddar cheese? Check. Option to add bacon? Check. Ordered. And on the other, there are “maximizers,” who go over all the possibilities, sometimes multiple times, until they’re absolutely positive they’ve landed on the very best one — the people who keep toggling back and forth between Seamless and Yelp to make sure the sandwich they’re considering is, in fact, the most delicious sandwich they could get.

On the whole, satisficers tend to be happier with their choices than maximizers — whether the decision in question is something as trivial as a lunch order or as life-altering as a career leap —largely because they don’t waste any time thinking about the options they discarded along the way. But according to a study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, that’s not really the whole story.

Over a series of experiments, the researchers surveyed volunteers about their life satisfaction, propensity for self-reflection, and agreement with statements like “I have the highest standards for myself,” and asked them to report on their emotional state while running through a hypothetical decision-making scenario. Based on the results, the authors argued that people who qualify as maximizers can actually be further divided into two subcategories. Promotion-focused maximizers carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each choice, searching for paths that are more heavily tilted toward the positive; assessment-focused maximizers, on the other hand, operate under the assumption that there’s one objectively best choice, period, and they have to carefully sift through all the available information to uncover it.

Members of this second group, the researchers wrote, shoulder the brunt of the anxiety associated with being a maximizer. “It’s okay to look through your options thoroughly, but what especially seems to produce frustration and regret when making decisions is reevaluating the same options over and over,” lead author Jeffrey Hughes, a social psychology researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said in a statement. “Doing so invites you to keep thinking about all the options you had to leave behind, rather than enjoying the option that you chose in the end.” Once you’ve exhaustively researched all the grilled cheeses in a three-mile radius, in other words, you might as well commit to the one you got. Odds are it’ll be delicious.

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A Strategy for Making Decisions You Won’t Regret