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The debate between best and least worst

  • To 'satisfice' is to pursue not the best option but a good enough one
  • Satisficing is the reason why certain brands can charge a premium over others

The key to ‘satisficing’ is finding the good enough option.
The key to ‘satisficing’ is finding the good enough option. (Photo: iStock)

We have all grown up wanting to (or at least being told to) go to the best colleges, get the best job, buy the best car or marry the best partner. The market mechanism has responded to our demand for “the best" of everything by attaching this superlative to all kinds of products. Till very recently, Gillette had been telling us that its razor is the “best a man can get". Even Cartoon Network (rather unimaginatively) tells us that it is the “best place for cartoons".

But we really have no way of knowing what’s best for us. In most spheres of life, optimizing for the best requires us to have complete information on all the variables that may affect our decision.

I recently decided to explore a Korean restaurant in Delhi with a friend where the menu had roughly 100 dishes. The server recommended that we order not more than three between the two of us. Since neither of us knew much about Korean cuisine, we had two options: First, read about all the dishes on the internet, find out how they look, then hope to have a healthy debate on which dishes were likely to ensure a perfect dining experience. Let’s call this the aiming-for-the-best method.

There are a few issues we would have faced while aiming for the best. For starters (yes, you get the pun), the internet was unlikely to give us accurate information about how each of those 100 dishes tasted at that restaurant. And even if it did, we would likely take hours to read about all of them and make a decision, turning our evening as sour as the complimentary kimchi salad on the table.

Our second option, which was the one we went with, was just to ask the server to bring us the three most popular dishes at the restaurant. These dishes might not be the best for our tastes and preferences but they were the least likely to be disastrous. We can call this the least worst method, or as the American polymath Herbert Simon would describe it, the satisficing method.

Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on decision-making, coined the term “satisficing" as a blend of the words “satisfy" and “suffice". To satisfice, according to Simon, is to pursue not the best option but a good enough one. Unlike what conventional economics teaches us, Simon posits that humans do not seek to maximize their utility since they don’t have all the information or the computational ability to calculate.

A satisficing decision is unconsciously taken, not to maximize welfare overall but to minimize the damage to the decision-maker in the event of a disastrously negative outcome.

Satisficing is the reason why certain brands can charge a premium over others. Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising company Ogilvy, explains this through a crisp example in his book Alchemy: “Imagine you’re looking at two televisions. Both seem to be equal in size, picture quality and functionality. One is manufactured by Samsung, while the other is manufactured by a brand you’ve never heard of—let’s call it Wangwei—and costs £200 less. Ideally, you would like to buy the best television you can, but avoiding buying a television that turns out to be terrible is more important. It is for the second quality and not the first that Samsung earns its £200, and you are absolutely right to pay for the name in this case. By contrast to a known brand, Wangwei has very little to lose from selling a bad television. They can’t command a price premium for their name, and so their name is worthless. If a manufacturing error had caused them to produce 20,000 dud televisions, the best strategy would be to offload them on unsuspecting buyers. However, had Samsung produced 20,000 sub-par sets, they would be faced with a much greater dilemma: the reputational damage from selling the bad televisions would spill over and damage the sales of every product carrying the Samsung name, which would cost them significantly more than they would gain from the sales."

In situations of radical uncertainty, heuristics serve us well in choosing the least worst options. Brands, as in the example above, rely on our ability to use the “recognition heuristic". German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer defines it in the following manner: “If one of two objects is recognized and the other is not, then infer that the recognized object has the higher value with respect to the criterion."

These heuristics help us make everyday decisions, such as choosing where to work, which college to attend or whom to vote for.

Significant literature in behavioural economics has labelled such suboptimal decision-making as irrational. But Gigerenzer, who remains one of the most erudite critics of this line of thinking, tells us in his book Risk Savvy that satisficing is completely rational in a world with incomplete awareness of risks as well as limited cognitive ability and resources.

Like most parents in India, mine wanted me to complete a university education in engineering. I rebelled and ended up studying business and economics, assuming engineering wasn’t the best option for me. It took a few years of studying the liberal arts to appreciate their wisdom: They were just satisficing; choosing the least worst option for me, like millions of parents in the country.

Archit Puri is a Delhi-based researcher and writer

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