Satisficing and Regularity

John Whitaker HR (& Life!) Advice, John Whitaker, Leadership

“Satisficing”… familiar with the term? I wasn’t, but then there’s Google. The term came up this week while discussing human behavior with a colleague. It’s a funny word that spell-check detests, but what does it mean, and why should you care?

The definition is plainly descriptive: A decision-making strategy that aims for a satisfactory or adequate result, rather than the optimal solution.

Why should we care? Well, even if the word is unfamiliar, we’re all guilty of satisficing at various points in our lives.

We settle. And it costs us.

It’s hardly a negative term, but it’s that neutrality that silently damages us as people, families, and companies. It’s “good enough,” but it deprives us of greatness.

The term was introduced by Herbert A. Simon in 1956 to explain why, in situations where an optimal solution cannot be conceived, humans will default to the first satisfactory solution offered. It’s easier, quicker, and brings us to resolution faster, even if the “solution” is inherently flawed. We do it all the time, accepting “solutions” in the sake of moving on to the next topic at hand. It could be laziness, fear, surrender, boredom, or even lack of brain power. Whatevs…


And, unbeknownst to me, I’ve used a story for years to describe this same behavior. Conducting training sessions for pharma salespeople, we discussed the concept of “exiting” too early when seeking the opportunity for a sale. Our tendency is to immediately react to a customer’s needs, addressing the symptoms instead of the true source of pain. So, back to said metaphor:

You’re on a road trip with your family… you’ve been in the car for several hours and hundreds of  miles. The first cries of “We’re hungry!” are being lobbed into the front seat. Blood sugar is low, temperaments are chippy, tension is high. The next “real” town is 40 miles away. As the miles go by, you see blue road signs with “Food” and “Gas” advertised, and even your co-pilot is beginning to bi-… er, gripe at you. You can see the glorified gas stations posing as restaurants, and they hold no appeal to you, but you are slowly being worn down by the savages in the back seat. Only 20 minutes away, a host of restaurants await if you can just hold on, but…  you’re done. To hell with it, we’ll take this exit.

Later that evening, as the family battles explosive diarrhea, you cringe looking back at the fatal decision to settle on Texaco’s finest. What if we could have waited 20 more minutes? 

How many times have you capitulated, given-in, or settled in a situation like this? Especially in a Human Resources role, it’s incumbent upon you to be the dissenting voice when needed. The first solution to a problem is not always the optimal solution; surely the extra effort is worth avoiding a night with the trots.

*I don’t want to trivialize Mr. Simon’s genius by trying to summarize his research in a blog post, please reference his work for more detailed explanation of decision-making processes and human behavior—it’s a scene man.