Sreehari was a friend of mine from high school. He was in fact, very good at studies. But he seemed to lack…..well- something. He had some favourite clothes that he wore repeatedly. He always ordered urud vada and coffee whenever we went out for a break.
One thing he was really interested in was becoming a doctor. He tried reasonably hard, but couldn’t get in the first attempt, immediately after his twelfth. Many told him he should try one more time. He was good. Try harder, and he was sure to get the next time. His mom and dad had the same opinion.
But he took the MSc course in Agriculture. He got in easily.
“It is a good applied science, man. I am happy with this, he said. Immediately after finishing, he got an offer to join a foreign university. It was a prestigious place. But he had to take a loan. That was what most would have done. But he joined the government service. He is very happy with it.
I met him the other day, after many years. We went out.
“This is a new place. The food is good. Shall we try the Pizza? It is supposed to be the specialty here.” I said.
“I will have an urud vada and coffee.” He said.
Sheena Iyengar is a Canadian of Indian origin who did many studies on choice. She has written a book also on how people choose things. We are so used to thinking that more choice is good. Now we have a glut of choice. The rise of individuality, a loosening of expectations from society, and the rise of big business that inundates us with more choices every day, is seen as highly desirable. Sheena did a study where she gave volunteers to taste and choose chocolates to buy in front of a shopping mall. When the choices were eight or less, the subjects took their time, tasted each, and made their choices. Then many bought what they liked. But when the choices are many, like 20, most people lost interest. They were mostly picking things at random and hardly bought anything. They were less satisfied, overall, with their experience. She did many similar experiments and had similar esults.
David Myers and Robert Lane have found some evidence to suggest that an overabundance of choice leads to depression.
What do humans do when we have to choose? Economists always had the answer. Their rational choice theory states that people think about the various costs and benefits of each choice, especially monetary and material gain, and choose that, which will give them maximum benefit- always. But it turns out that everyone doesn’t do that. Only some do.
Herbert A Simon was the first Psychologist to introduce the concept of Maximisers and Satisficers. Maximsers are a bit like what the Economists imagine people to be. They want to look at all the choices. They want the maximum benefit. They weigh each option carefully and aim for the best. For them, only the Best is good.
For the Satisficers, acceptable is good. They aim for what is satisfactory for them. They look at an array of choices and quickly zero in on one- “Oh that is good enough for me”.
Barry Schwartz, Andrew Ward and Sonja Lyubomirsky were the pioneers who in 2002 established a definite connection between this and happiness. Maximisers had less life satisfaction, happiness, optimism and self-esteem. They suffered from more regrets and depression. The maximisers are more concerned with social comparison. Many of their choices may be influenced by others. Social prestige is one of the major concerns of a maximiser than their own individual radar.
In an earlier era, the universe of choice was a constrained one. You could only have whatever was available. You could do only what society wanted you to do.
Now, there is a Big Bang of options. And does the Satisficer win?
I don’t know. This is one problem with any prescription on how to live. No one can dictate to us what to do. Especially when the choices pull you in opposite directions.
It depends on your viewpoint. Studies have shown that maximisers generally achieve more money and status. Of course, they are not happy with what they have acquired. Take your pick.