Tale of the Maximizer


Having choices is essential to having a sense of autonomy in life. In a culture that highly values having choices, it is easy to believe that having more choices is better. Yet, in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz contests this assumption by providing a series of arguments documenting how having more choices can be detrimental to our well-being. In this short review, I will showcase how our choices about how we make choices can expose us to numerous cognitive distortions.

Analysis Paralysis

I expect that most adults have felt something that I would describe as analysis paralysis. It’s a sense of being overwhelmed, stressed, and uncertain regarding a decision. Generally, this feeling stems from too much information rather than ignorance of the subject. Somewhat unexpectedly, I’m more like to feel analysis paralysis with simple questions like where to go for dinner rather then major decisions like determining where to live. Schwartz believes this feeling is most likely to arise when we attempt to find the best option possible. He describes this character action as maximizing.

On the other side of things, we make many choices that we give little thought to at all. What type of coffee do you drink in the morning, or where do you head when you set out on an evening walk. These choices don’t carry the same stress because we are content with good enough. I like coffee; it’s what I drink. This is the behavior of the satisfier, as defined by Schwarts.

The author states that each individual tends to be a maximizer for specific choices and a satisfier for others. Yet those individuals who attempt to maximize more choices also tend to take less pleasure from positive events, take longer to rebound from negative events, and ruminate for longer periods over past events. The more likely you are to look for the optimal choice, the more likely you will experience feelings associated with depression. As depression is highly related to cognitive distortions, I wanted to understand better the potential relationship between these two features.

A Tale of the Maximizer : The Best Fried Chicken

George is a maximizer when it comes to eating out. When he learned that his out-of-town friends were coming to visit, he offered to take them out for dinner. His guest expressed an interest in fried chicken, so naturally, George began to seek the best fried chicken place in the town.

all or nothing thinking: Even though there are many chicken places, George believes that the best fried chicken place exists.

George starts researching the options by investigating the top-rated chicken places in his town. He relies on the reviews of others to weigh the pros and cons of each establishment. One location is standing out with 500 plus 5-star reviews but, George can’t shake that specific one-star review.

discounting the positives: The single negative review outweighs the numerous positive ones.

The negative review is so vividly described that he can readily imagine his visit going the same way.

over generalization: Because a bad thing happened before you believe it is likely to happen again.

George knows for a fact that his guest would surely hate this location if anything that was described in the negative review happened to them.

jumping to conclusions: George is making the assumption that he and his guest would share the same response to this hypothetical situation.

After hours of reviewing, George eventually determines a location based on the very detailed single opinion of a food critic.

magnification: The quality of a single review outweighs the breadth of information that George has collected.

When the guest arrives, George takes them to visit the chosen fried chicken place. While the guests enjoy the food, George constantly compares how the experience doesn’t match that described by the stellar review and lets his newly found negative feelings change his view on the food.

emotional reasoning: George is getting upset, which translates to his subjective assessment of everything else around him.

While wrapping up the dinner, George can’t help wondering just how much better that other chicken place could have been, and he starts apologizing for bringing his guest to this less than perfect fried chicken spot.

should statement: George is evaluating a past choice and letting it influence his own experience of the moment.

He expounds on how he only picked this place because of the review from the food critic, who is obviously a lousy judge of fried chicken.

personalization and blame, and 9. Labeling: George doesn’t take responsibility for his choice and justifies it by placing a negative classification on someone else.

The Cost of Maximizing

While this is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s easy to see that cognitive distortions can arise when you search for the best thing possible. While it’s fine to look for quality, it’s best to use your definitions of what is acceptable and not rely on relative assessment based on secondary experience. In our story, George’s guests were interested in trying a fried chicken place in a new town. That was their measure of success. With that parameter meet they were able to enjoy the meal for what it was and not worry about comparisons. They allowed themselves to be satisfied.

While each individual is uniquely affected by cognitive distortions, when you search for the best, you’re far more likely to run into them. The more exposures you have, the more likely these thoughts will change your perspective. It’s important to be selective in the topics you choose to maximize, as doing so costs quite a bit more than you might expect.

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