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Are you a maximiser or a satisficer?

By Jeremy Ballenger - posted Friday, 14 July 2006

Jam or marmalade?

I ran out of jam this morning. Toast on cutting board, open cupboard - no jam. In a mild panic I logged onto Safeway’s website. Salvation. Thirty types of conserve for those in the market for jams and marmalades.

Something sweet or something tart? I’ve always had a sweet tooth, but that business breakfast I went to recently served marmalade, and all the heavy-hitters were laying it on thick. Marmalade it must be.


We’re hosting that barbeque at our place this weekend and the boss and some of his well-connected friends will be over. With the Weber very 1980, I’ll log onto Barbeques Galore and find myself a stainless steel Rinnai. I’m probably going to be up for a couple of grand but that’s what it takes these days to have a decent outdoor kitchen.

I still have to decide on an approach to health care. Should I go with the public system? I pay tax, so why not? But public hospitals have long waiting lists and drug-resistant superbugs. Private it is - I want my own room. All I have to do now is choose among providers.

Which do I value more? Do I think I’m going to get sick now (that old football injury is playing up and I can get cheap knee surgery), or do I pay a lower premium and wrap myself in cottonwool?

I suppose I should also consider later life while I’m at it. Costello has been hinting I can forget a pension so best I pick a good super fund. Hang on, what’s this? “Past performance is no guarantee of future earnings.” And I remember reading somewhere else that fund managers as a species never outperform the market. Maybe I should do it myself?

My income will be sufficient, I think. If I get sick of working “for the man”, or if he’s not impressed by the Rinnai, I can always take a package and go freelance, working from my down-shift beach shack. I’ll look after my own benefits … although that salaried position with a health plan, child care and car could be good too.

These days you can choose your health, superannuation, looks, love, work arrangements, religion and even your identity. Considering this, and reading through the situation described in the previous paragraphs, it’s not surprising we feel disoriented in this world of expanding choice.


Many economists argue that as rational beings all we are interested in is maximising our “utility”, or satisfaction with everything in life. Advertising and marketing condition us everyday through social comparison. Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza” - we wind up wanting better, all the time, in a time of abundance. Call it what you will, but boil it down to this - if you seek and will accept only the best you are a maximiser.

But maximising has downsides, and not just the above neuroses. Choosing to maximise in everything we do exposes us to a number of influences.

Considering all available options in the search for the best incurs costs. Time spent in reaching the decision could have been invested in activities more pleasurable than choosing the right barbeque, not to mention the costs of information gathering - driving all over the place visiting outdoor shops looking for the perfect stainless steel appliance. These costs will figure in any maximiser’s final decision.

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About the Author

Jeremy Ballenger is a Melbourne-based researcher and writer. His website is here.

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