My finances, my projects, my life
May 27, 2022

When good is good enough

As the old adage goes, perfect is the enemy of good. But do you ever factor this into your decision-making? Do you stop at the “good” option, or do you keep going to try and find something even better? In this myLIFE article, we’ll talk about how good can often be better than perfect.

Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? Chances are, you don’t. But we bet you still try to find the best school for your kids, the best house for your family, and the best investment banking service or loan. When you’re planning a holiday, how often do you find yourself searching for the perfect hotel in the perfect location with the best food and the best value for money all within your budget? Of course, this is something we all do. But are we just chasing unicorns?

It can be difficult to make a decision when none of the options available are exactly what you’re looking for. But many experts approach decision-making differently. Instead of searching for the holy grail, they find an option they’re happy with and choose that one. This might not be the most rational approach, but it’s often the most efficient.

If you’re a keen reader of myLIFE, this proposition might leave you feeling a bit disconcerted. In another post, we talked about how good intuition could just be an illusion and that good decision-making is founded on tangible, rational evidence. Yet experts can only trust their intuition in a given situation if they’ve been through something similar before. So, how do we make a decision if we can’t rely on our intuition?

The limitations of “rational”

We all love having a vast number of options to choose from. It means we can find the best products and services for ourselves and our family, boosts feelings of self-fulfilment and affirms our freedom of choice.

Classic economic theory recommends being as rational as possible and assessing all the opportunity costs available in order to make good decisions. This would involve comparing and contrasting all the options, assessing all the benefits each one has to offer before making a decision. By that token, we should not be picking a particular insurance policy – or even a particular toothpaste – until we’ve evaluated all the similar offers on the market.

Today we have access to a whole host of comparison services or sites. These let previous customers give their opinions on an establishment or service provider, which in theory should help us make a decision. In reality, though, we actually end up with too many options. With 20 types of toothpaste at the supermarket, or 40 tradespeople working on the same kinds of projects, or hundreds of potential partners on a dating site, it’s impossible to make a rational choice.

Trying to make every decision the best one in today’s world is exhausting and futile.

Trying to make every decision the best one in today’s world is exhausting and futile. We all know that perfection doesn’t exist, and yet we keep comparing more and more options to try and find it. Making decisions becomes a frustrating and stressful process. In the end, we might not make one at all. Or we might drag out feel for so long that we’re left with the worst or even the only option – like the only hotel still available over Christmas.

Being rational in our decision-making and always aiming for perfection can prevent us from making a decision at all. But luckily, that’s not the only option.

Satisfied?

A good choice does not necessarily have to be the perfect choice. Herbert Simon, an American sociologist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics who died in 2001, said that people who chose adequacy were people who favoured efficiency over optimisation. In doing so, these people often took better, more responsible and quicker decisions than those who wanted to make every decision perfect.

It’s as simple as choosing the first option that you’re happy with.

Instead of seeking perfection, this group of people stop their search as soon as they find a satisfactory option. It’s as simple as choosing the first one that you’re happy with, i.e. one that is satisfactory on the basis of various criteria you define yourself.

So while this approach may not involve being “rational”, it can still lead to good decisions, whether you’re buying a particular brand of toothpaste or even a new home. Herbert Simon’s groundbreaking work in this area made him one of the pioneers of decision-making based on artificial intelligence. Take some time to read some of his findings if you want to delve deeper into the topic.

His “satisficing” approach is also often the one that experts choose when they have to make a quick but high-stakes decision to deal with an unforeseen situation. Think about when Captain Chesley Sullenberger had to ditch in the Hudson river in 2009. This event, which inspired the 2016 film “Sully” with Tom Hanks, is a perfect example of Simon’s thinking.

Picking the best option

Luckily, most of the decisions we take day-to-day are not quite so critical. Yet research on decision-making can still provide plenty of food for thought.

The sheer amount of choice we have in today’s world means that – first and foremost – we need to learn how to be satisfied with a good option. We need to stop agonising over insignificant decisions like toothpaste brands or which shade of grey is best for the kitchen floor. We can save our time and energy for the decisions that really matter.

We never know when a big decision might crop up, so now is as good a time as any to learn how to be content with a satisfactory option.

One way of doing this is to set a few key criteria to base our decisions on. This decision-making method, called “fast and frugal”, was advocated by Gerd Gigerenzer, a world-renowned expert on decision-making. Based on the “take-the-best option” heuristic, the approach does not focus on out-and-out rationality but is very efficient.

As soon as there’s one key factor that sets a particular option apart, that’s the time to make the decision.

This straightforward decision-making strategy involves selecting one of two unfamiliar alternatives on the basis of criteria we define ourselves. As soon as there’s one key factor that sets a particular option apart, that’s the time to make the decision.

Gigerenzer tested this strategy in an experiment. Participants were given a list of 83 German towns and asked to decide which had populations of more than 100,000. The subjects did not have any specific knowledge about the towns and had to make their choice on the basis of at most nine criteria, stopping as soon as they saw the first key differentiator between two towns.

The criteria included whether a particular town was a state capital or had a famous football team. By assessing the towns two at a time according to the specific criteria, 72% of the participants were able to correctly identify the towns with more than 100,000 residents. An impressive result.

If you take anything away from this article, it’s that you too can improve your day-to-day decision-making by defining a very small number of criteria. If you’re buying a house, your criteria could be having a large garden or three bedrooms. When choosing a credit card, it might be whether the card has free withdrawals abroad as you travel a lot. And with loans, you could look at the rate, or even the compulsory personal contribution or the proposed maximum term.

The next time you have a decision to make, start by setting yourself specific criteria. Assess your options using those criteria and go with the first one that meets them. You’ll be able to make a decision more quickly while still being satisfied with your choice.