The Optimized Doctor

Is it OK to just be satisfied?


It is possible to talk to a patient for a brief moment and just know if he or she is a satisficer or a maximizer. A “satisficer” when presented with treatment options will invariably say: “I’ll do whatever you say, Doctor.” A “maximizer,” in contrast, would like a printed copy of treatment choices, then would seek a second opinion before ultimately buying an UpToDate subscription to research treatments for him or herself.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Which is more like you? Which should you be if you want to be happy? I’m mostly a satisficer and would like to present an argument for why this way is best.

This notion that we have tendencies toward maximizing or satisficing is thanks to Nobel Memorial Prize winner and all-around smart guy, Herbert A. Simon, PhD. Dr. Simon recognized that, although each person might be expected to make optimal decisions to benefit himself or herself, this is practically impossible. To do so would require an infinite amount of time and energy. He found therefore that we actually exhibit “bounded rationality;” that is, we make the best decision given the limits of time, the price of acquiring information, and even our cognitive abilities. The amount of effort we give to make a decision also depends on the situation: You might be very invested in choosing the right spouse, but not at all invested in choosing soup or salad. (Although, we all have friends who are: “Um, is there any thyme in the soup?”)

You’ll certainly recognize that people have different set points on the spectrum between being a satisficer, one who will take the first option that meets a standard, and a maximizer, one who will seek and accept only the best, even if choosing is at great cost. There are risks and benefits of each. In getting the best job, maximizers might be more successful, but satisficers seem to be happier.

How much this extends into other spheres of life is unclear. It is clear, though, that the work of choosing can come at a cost.

The psychologist Barry Schwartz, PhD, believes that, in general, having more choices leads to more anxiety, not more contentment. For example, which Christmas tree lot would you rather visit: One with hundreds of trees of half a dozen varieties? Or one with just a few trees each of Balsam and Douglas Firs? Dr. Schwartz would argue that you might waste an entire afternoon in the first lot only to bring it home and have remorse when you realize it’s a little lopsided. Or let’s say your child applied to all the Ivy League and Public Ivy schools and also threw in all the top liberal arts colleges. The anxiety of selecting the best and the terror that the “best one” might not choose him or her could be overwhelming. A key lesson is that more in life is by chance than we realize, including how straight your tree is and who gets into Princeton this year. Yet, our expectation that things will work out perfectly if only we maximize is ubiquitous. That confidence in our ability to choose correctly is, however, unwarranted. Better to do your best and know that your tree will be festive and there are many colleges which would lead to a happy life than to fret in choosing and then suffer from dashed expectations. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

Being a satisficer or maximizer is probably somewhat fixed, a personality trait, like being extroverted or conscientious. Yet, having insight can be helpful. If choosing a restaurant in Manhattan becomes an actual project for you with spreadsheets and your own statistical analysis, then go for it! Just know that if that process causes you angst and apprehension, then there is another way. Go to Eleven Madison Park, just because I say so. You might have the best dinner of your life or maybe not. At least by not choosing you’ll have the gift of time to spend picking out a tree instead.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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