Optimization Is A Sham

Free School Child Choosing Aqua Blue Colored Pencil (unedited) Creative Commons

Optimization, the ability to find the “best” choice among a list of choices, is a sham. When faced with a list of choices, we rarely evaluate each and every choice independently, instead we usually evaluate them in terms of each other. What really happens when someone is faced with a list of choices? He or she settles for the first adequate solution available, whether it’s deciding where to eat lunch, whom to hire amongst a list of candidates, choosing a mate, selecting a new home, or deciding on a career.

Our decisions are based on what makes us comfortable

It’s just how we’re motivated – to choose the selection that make us the most comfortable. This is usually a pragmatic approach and it works well in most circumstances. When there are many choices, optimizing can be a hopeless task, so we compromise. Generally we choose the first option that meets our minimum requirements, then begin the task of convincing ourselves that we made the right decision, intentionally looking for any indication that backs up our decision.

Marketers know this, our natural tendency to compromise. But are we selling ourselves short? Are we unlikely to end up with anything better than the minimum we’re willing to accept? How do we fight these natural inclinations?

Start out with what you want rather than what you’ll accept

When my wife and I bought our first home, our realtor recommended that we make three lists:

  • List One – things that were an absolute must. Our list had things like central air conditioning, two car garage, full basement, fenced backyard, front porch, fireplace, master bedroom on the main level.
  • List Two – things that we really want. Out list included gas appliances, walk-in closets, attic storage, and a separate bedroom for our little girls.
  • List Three – things that would be nice but aren’t deal breakers. We listed landscaping, city sewer rather than septic tank, proximity to the grocery store, screened porch, white cabinets, and a playroom.

By making these lists, we were able to decide what we really wanted and use self discipline to look only at those homes that had all items in list one, some or all of list two, and if anything from list three were there, bonus! In the end, our new home had all of list one and two, and most of list three. It all started with knowing exactly what we wanted.

You can apply this idea to anything you wish. Apply it to your career, to the next company you want to work for, or to your next car purchase. Apply it to your choice in selecting a lawnmower, an engagement ring, or an employee.

The key is to decide what you want ahead of time. That way, you won’t get hood-winked into making a choice you’ll later regret.

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

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