NEW YORK - A recent psychology study caught my eye because the interpretation seemed bizarre, and possibly misguided. The study involved a survey of several hundred newlywed heterosexual couples, which included a test to see if they were “maximizers,” who can’t settle for anything but the perfect choice, or “satisficers,” who can, as the word implies, be satisfied with something that suffices.
And lo and behold, the satisficers were pretty happy with their spouses, but the maximizers were only happy, for the time being, if they had attractive wives (as judged by the researchers) or rich husbands. The way the researchers seemed to be interpreting their result, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, was that male maximizers should marry beautiful women, and female ones should marry rich men.
Does this mean that even people who were really holding out for someone fun and intelligent should settle for rich or good-looking? Or is it assuming that money and looks are all anyone really cares about?
There are lots of literary characters who follow this advice, and often it doesn’t end well. Think of the “social X-rays” of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” or as a more recent example, the ultrarich hedge fund manager Barry Cohen of Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success,” which Rolling Stone magazine called a 21st-century “Bonfire.” Cohen chooses a wife who is both beautiful and ambitious, not because he admires her ambition but because he assumes ambitious women are less likely to get fat.
I asked one of the authors of the paper, Florida State University graduate student Juliana French, why they chose to focus on looks and money. She said these are ancient values — looks being a proxy for fertility in women, and money being a sign that a man can provide for a family. “These are important cues about human mate utility across human history,” she said. “They are ingrained in our psychological systems.”
Besides, she explained, these are the traits that are obvious enough that maximizers can size up near strangers and compare them with their unfortunate spouses. And it’s those bad comparisons that make the maximizers so unhappy when they don’t get a pretty wife or a rich husband. But if the game works as French explained it — a looks and money contest — then such unhappiness will be the inevitable fate of those who can’t bring their own appropriate currency to the table.
Encouraging maximizers to recognize this in themselves is one thing. Advising them to pursue it is quite another. Wouldn’t it make more sense to advise these people to learn to “satisfice” a little bit more? The maximizing tendency is a fairly stable trait, she said. It’s not clear how much people can change. If that’s the case, then it seems clear to me the advice should be aimed at satisficers: If a maximizer pursues you, run for the hills.
For perspective, I called Barry Schwartz, a psychologist who did pioneering work on the science of choices, including the satisficing-maximizing spectrum. He said the concept of satisficing goes back to the 1950s, when economist Herbert Simon proposed that the field had been built on the faulty assumption that everyone was trying to maximize something called utility — that is, they would accept only the best possible deal on anything. Simon realized that people won’t benefit from spending the time or energy it would take to compare every possible example of a product they want. Better to save valuable time by getting an idea of what’s out there and pick something that’s good enough.
What Schwartz discovered was that people vary along a spectrum of satisficing and maximizing. Some people really can’t pick a car or a restaurant or a bottle of wine without wasting hours weighing choices and still feeling unhappy that there might have been a better option. In 2003, he and colleagues published a paper showing that extreme maximizers tend to be relatively unhappy, pessimistic and regretful, and prone to low self-esteem and depression.
He was as baffled as I was about the interpretation of this recent study on maximizers and romantic partnerships. When people are surveyed about the traits they value in potential mates, kindness, humor and intelligence come up before looks or money. He thought that when researchers see correlations with these superficial traits, it might be because they are easier to measure than the qualities that matter most for long-term relationships to succeed.
On the other hand, the tendency to scan too many choices can induce superficiality. Schwartz pointed to research on speed dating, in which people spent an evening rotating through short conversations. When faced with six choices, speed daters focused on intelligence, personality and character, but those given 12 choices focused only on looks. So perhaps those maximizers, compelled as they are to examine every possibility, can’t help but get stuck on the obvious.
Isn’t the trick to life not extreme maximizing or immediate satisficing, but rather setting smart and variable standards? Hold out for the best in areas that matter — such as integrity, intelligence and kindness — and settle when it comes to the trivial details, such as a person’s height or the make of their car. The researchers who gather data aren’t always the best sources of wisdom about what it means or, for that matter, how to live. It’s a good thing we have some artists to help them out.
Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.