Good Enough: Making Decisions Is (Not?) Complicated
How do we chart our path forward when we have multiple and seemingly divergent options, interests, and passions that we want to pursue? We have one lifetime and limitless opportunities, and that truth alone can be debilitating. Sometimes, when presented with so many options, we choose nothing at all. Perhaps you feel lost and don't even know where to start.
In our pursuit of perfectionism and achievement, we often miss out on the good choices available to us now in hopes that a better option will come to us later. By choosing the "good enough" option, we may feel like we are settling. But the research shows quite the contrary: those who opt for the "good enough" options available to them often make sound decisions and lead more satisfying lives than the idealists and perfectionists. From dining at Cheesecake Factory to choosing a life partner, let's take some time to dive in and explore the process of decision-making to overcome the vast amount of options so that we can lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
We are faced with more choices and options than ever before. Dating apps drastically expand our possibilities for a significant other. It's not like you are only limited to Sally or Bobby on the same block. Now, you have an entire network of people looking for the same thing (in theory) as you, and better yet, you can filter your results! The average Target store carries over 100 toothbrush options. Starbucks has over 250 menu options. Music creators add an average or 63,000 tracks every day on streaming platforms.
So. Many. Options.
Of course, decision-making, from a scientific standpoint, necessitates that we have evaluated all of the available options and logically consider each option before making a decision. That is near impossible with the number of options we have today. This leads to what researchers call decision fatigue, with some people even being entirely decision avoidant. Millennial and Gen Z individuals are twice as likely to experience "decision paralysis" than any other generation due to the number of options they face.
A landmark research experiment colloquially referred to as the "Jam Test" essentially proved this point (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). Customers presented with 24 jam flavor options were far less likely to buy any of them (after all, how the heck does one decide between strawberry-raspberry or strawberry-rhubarb?). When customers had only six options, they were 10 times more likely to purchase a flavor.
This landmark study has a lot of crossover to human behavior research, particularly decision-making. Newsflash: humans are terrible at making important decisions. Most flawed among our decision-making is related to our relationships. A recent fascinating study with human behavior researchers in partnership with Hinge––a popular dating app considered the "anti-swipe" to dating––found something profound. Those who went on dates seeking that first date "spark" rated themselves as more lonely, were single longer than they wanted, and ultimately left the app to pursue other options. Those who enjoyed the "slow burn" rated themselves as more content and secure with their relationship, and found a partner that made them feel happier than they could otherwise feel alone. Fundamental to this study is the cognitive understanding of attraction.
Society and Hollywood films teach us that attraction is instantaneous and something that you feel immediately. Science tells us otherwise: attraction is additive, cumulative, and builds over time in tandem with the fundamental bedrock of emotional connection.
As of 2021, 40% of young adults are single, making it the highest rate of singles in recorded history. Pew researchers said this isn't due to high divorce rates (though they are also higher than ever). There is "a rise in the number of individuals who have never been married, or considered themselves in a long term relationship." This study did not examine correlation or causation, but one must wonder if this has to do with the availability of options and how that can create decision paralysis. With so many choices available to us, perhaps we choose nothing and no one at all. Or perhaps we are waiting for the next best option (more on that later).
We experience attraction when it comes to a potential job offer, opportunity, or new career path. We experience attraction when we see a billboard advertisement for Del Taco (assuming you are inclined to like Del Taco). We experience attraction at the prospect of something new and exciting. And when we experience attraction, we feel compelled to make a decision.
So how do we choose? Let's dive in.
All decisions have an end point. For this blog, I'm going to assume that we are almost entirely unable to truly investigate and consider all available options in our busy lives. To be very clear for any decision science nerds out there: there are different decision-making frameworks not discussed in this blog based on my guiding assumption.
One essential decision-making framework to understand is called optimal stopping. This is also sometimes referred to as satisficing, though decision-making researchers will argue they are entirely different. I'll define both:
Optimal Stopping: The theory of optimal stopping is concerned with the problem of choosing a time to take a particular action, in order to maximize an expected reward or minimize an expected cost.
Satisficing: a decision-making strategy and cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. In other words, it's accepting an available option as satisfactory.
The most famous theoretical and practical example of an optimal stopping problem is "The Secretary Problem" or "The Marriage Problem." Imagine a hiring manager seeking to hire a new employee after a first interview or a single individual deciding who to marry based on an initial date. Each candidate is assessed individually and ranked. In this mathematical theory, one must decide immediately after the interview/date to disqualify this individual or give them a ranking for consideration. Once rejected, the individual cannot be recalled and reconsidered. As the interviews/dates continue, the seeker gains information sufficient to rank the candidates among all other candidates assessed so far but is unaware of the quality of yet unseen candidates.
In the optimal stopping theory framework, if there are 10 candidates, the first candidate should always be rejected because, as a matter of odds, they are the worst of all candidates considered so far. You would then proceed to consider the following 9 candidates and stop at the first candidate that is better than any other candidate considered so far (or continue to the last candidate if this never occurs).
Here's the staggering kicker: this optimal stopping theory has proven time and time again that you will select the single best candidate 37% of the time. If that sounds low, consider that random chance alone with 10 candidates would have a success rate of approximately 10%. In other words, optimal stopping is almost four times more effective. 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce. I wonder if those numbers would be different if we relied more on optimal stopping theory and less on the latest dating advice from Buzzfeed.
The temptation, of course, is to keep looking. And this is why human behavior and decision-making science are often at odds. In fact, it's why humans are generally quite terrible at making good decisions. Even if we think we've found a suitable candidate, there's the temptation to look at the next best one just in case they are better. In this scenario, the longer you look for the better option, the more likely you will lose the first good option. As a real lived example, I served on a hiring committee, and we deliberated for weeks on who to hire. I insisted that we needed to offer the position to someone soon or we would lose all available candidates. When we finally extended the job offer to candidate #1, the person had already moved on and found another job. When we extended the offer to candidate #2, that person declined it, knowing they were the alternative choice. Oof.
Settling, from a psychological standpoint, means you have stopped caring. In other words, the difference between settling and being realistic is indifference.
When I share the concept of satisficing and optimal stopping with people, especially as it relates to relationships, they'll accuse me of encouraging them to settle. The Hinge study and the concepts of optimal stopping make it clear: choosing an optimal candidate (not a perfect candidate) where there is a foundational bedrock of emotional connection and safety as the primary priority is essential. Then, allowing time for attraction to grow creates the highest possible chance of forging a long, happy, and healthy relationship. I argue that optimal stopping is exceptionally realistic––and there's plenty of statistical data to back that. Settling, from a psychological standpoint, means you have stopped caring. In other words, the difference between settling and being realistic is indifference. Optimal stopping does not factor indifference into the formula; quite the opposite: its sole desire is to seek the best possible option with the highest probability.
Optimal Stopping In Practice
Start small if you aren't ready to rely on optimal stopping to pick your next soulmate (ha). The next time you choose your parking space, think of optimal stopping. When you've been driving around the parking lot for several minutes hoping to find the best spot, you probably realized a few hard truths:
By focusing on finding the best parking spot, you passed by several optimal spots that would have been perfectly suitable.
You would have saved more time and gas by picking an optimal spot.
By the time you realize that you should have picked the first optimal spot and turned back around, the spot is already taken, and now you have to start the search process over again.
So, try incorporating optimal stopping when you're searching for a parking space. Drive by the first available optimal spot, then choose the next best one. It works and saves you time...37% of the time. Or, leave it to random chance. In a parking lot with 100 available spots, you'll have a 1% chance of being happy with your parking spot––and the amount of time it took––in the random chance scenario. Or, be as selective as possible and only stop for the perfect parking spot. You'll have a 100% chance of being late to your destination.
When Optimal Stopping Doesn't Work
Human existence can sometimes make the soundest mathematical formulas complicated. Even mathematicians and computer scientists will admit that optimal stopping isn't always the solution (well, most of them...).
If you have to choose between several different similar yet divergent paths, the optimal stopping formula will have an input error. So in those instances where optimal stopping isn't the most useful tool, here are four helpful inputs to consider: information, feelings, expertise, and perfectionism. They are deliberately placed in this order as information and problem-defining are essential.
When we face an important life decision, we collect as much information as possible. While we think this is helping us, simply amassing a volume of information clouds judgment and decision-making. It's a term cognitive scientists call information overload or cognitive overload. Rather than seeking more information, seek the correct information. How do we know what the "correct information" is? You need to define the fundamental problem you are trying to solve clearly. If you are contemplating a career pivot or transition, what problem are you trying to solve? You sincerely need to dig deep and look inward to arrive at an answer. People who focus on clearly defining the problem instead of seeking the answer are more successful in their careers. And once you do this, you'll start collecting the correct information. Warning: if you seek an answer instead of defining a problem, you will not gather the correct information; you will seek confirmatory information that can cause further complications.
Not all thoughts need to have meaning associated with them. In fact, most of our thoughts are indeed fleeting and meaningless. However, our feelings are something different. Many psychological researchers posit that decisions cannot be made without feelings. Others believe that reliance on feelings is dependent on the scale and severity of the decision to be made. For example, if you need to decide between a taco or a burrito on the menu, that is not an emotional quandary; you can just make a rational choice based on what sounds more appetizing to you in that moment. You don't need to tune into your feelings to decide between a taco and a burrito (no offense to the hardcore Del Taco fans). However, if you need to choose between moving to a new country to start a new career or remaining in your current position, you may need to tune in more to feelings and engage with and challenge those feelings over time.
If you are an expert in the subject in which choices must be made, you can safely trust your "gut." Example: a medical doctor deciding if surgery or chemotherapy is the better first treatment; a musician deciding which five pieces to perform on a program. Researchers would still encourage experts to play the "outside perspective" role for additional decision confirmation. In other words, what advice would you give to a friend in the same situation? If your outside perspective advice and your expert gut reaction are aligned, the chances are high that you are making a good enough decision. If you are not an expert, research shows you need to seek the input and advice of experts (this relates to collecting the correct information). There is one area in which you are always the expert, and it's important to remember this: you are the only expert on yourself.
While optimal stopping doesn't apply to everything, every decision must have a stopping point. At some point, you must stop deciding and make a choice. You must often make a good enough decision rather than holding out to make the best or perfect decision. The more we strive to make perfect choices, the more our brain's decision-making capabilities begin to shut down. When you focus on the perfect choice or outcome, your brain overloads the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and causes you to feel emotionally paralyzed and out of control. When we recognize that the "good enough" option is precisely that––good enough––your dorsolateral prefrontal areas activate and help you feel calm and in control. This region of the brain is also inherently able to help you pick the most equitable and balanced option for you.
Summary: Good Enough
If we are concerned with making the "right choice," that is usually an indication that we are pursuing perfection, which is emotionally harmful and puts us in an endless spiral of chasing the next "perfection high." Instead, if we shift our focus to making the "good enough" choice and allow space for the "slow burn," life satisfaction, happiness, and joy can have space to flourish. Whether picking a life partner or finding a parking spot, we all must find an optimal stopping point, lest we spend our entire lives searching for the next best thing. In a world where we face almost debilitating choices and options, it's important to remember one thing: good enough is almost always good enough.