Sunday, August 8, 2010

Satisficing: the cure for analysis paralysis

I have a great family, a house, and I am part of a socially stabilizing effort assisting in the development of humankind toward a deeper understanding and appreciation for life.  No one person does this alone.  And yet, I have a problem.  Lack of motivation?  Obsessive-compulsive?  Instant gratification impulsiveness? Inability to defer gratification to a later date?  No.  Perfectionism?  Indecisiveness?  Closer.  As Dan Ariely puts it, "When we are choosing between two or more very similar options, we tend NOT to take into account the consequences of not deciding."  In other sources, this situation is cleverly termed "analysis paralysis".  My almost compulsive over analysis of some ideas came to my attention in a post dated 11 May 2010.  (The following portion of this entry will borrow heavily from the most popular online reference, Wikipedia, paraphrasing liberally.)

Analysis paralysis describes the situation where a decision is treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options; when a person seeks an optimal or "perfect" solution upfront, and fears making any decision which could lead to erroneous results.  In the end a choice is never made, despite the alternative of trying something and changing if a major problem arises. In this example the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits that could be gained by enacting some decision.

Herbert Simon (who researched cognitive psychology, politics, sociology, and computer science, among other fields) defined two cognitive styles: maximizers who try to make an optimal decision, and satisficers who simply try to find a solution that is "good enough". Maximizers tend to take longer making decisions due to the need to maximize performance across all variables and make tradeoffs carefully; and some suggest they also tend to more often regret their decisions

Simon coined the word satisfice in 1956. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize.  A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations, this is called bounded rationality.  Bounded rationality is the notion that in decision making, rationality of individuals is limited by:
  • the information they have (we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes), 
  • the cognitive limitations of their minds (we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision and our memories are weak and unreliable), and 
  • the finite amount of time they have to make decisions. 
(Thus ends my liberal paraphrasing of Wikipedia.)

So what can I conclude from all this?  Well, a rational person who adopts a realistic perspective is a satisficer; someone who recognizes that this kind of decisiveness is in the long run a more optimal solution than indecisiveness despite the initial appearance that it is a poor decision making strategy.  (This reflects Tim Pychyl's anti-procrastination mantra "just get started.")  Satisficers take an evolutionary approach to optimization, where some "accidental" solution is used so long as it works, and competing solutions are naturally selected such that the best ones are used and less optimal solutions either change or are no longer used.  And in the final analysis, who is to say that an optimal solution exists (Zhuangzi had much to say on this subject)?  Each solution has advantages and disadvantages, once the apparently worst options are removed, what remains may be qualitatively indistinguishable.  Satisficers, and the process of evolution, both have no definite goal, or even a clear direction (in a sense).  Perfectionists and maximizers do have a goal: making the optimal decision, and they insist on knowing what that is before they take any action.  That is their weakness and eventual downfall. 

Tags: decision making, indecisiveness, irrational delay, deferred gratification, analysis paralysis, satisficing, bounded rationality


Aratina Cage said...

Smart analysis. My thoughts turned political while thinking about it. Could it be that more liberals need to approach politics as satisficers rather than maximizers?

Keir said...

I think there is a place for both satisficers and maximizers, at different times each approach has its clear benefits. A maximizer may take an approach that a satisficer never would. Here I presented satisficing as a method that is likely more effective overall than maximizing, so if liberals tend to be maximizers then perhaps they would be more effective if they changed their approach. But I don't see any reason to assume that they differ from conservatives in this regard. What liberals lack is group unity and action ("herding cats"), and popular advocates. What they do have is a lot of obstacles to overcome, and cultural inertia. Change is slow but it can't be stopped.