Decision-Making, Goal-Setting and Perfectionism

decision making styles

Decision-making can be just plain hard.

We often we ourselves to be perfect, which makes realistic goals seem too low of a bar rather than a great place to begin.

“A nice way we can look at decision-making is seeing it as a banquet. We have a large table in front of us with all the options and related costs and benefits of each of them. Just like which dish we choose, we pick the option depending on these components. “

There are two styles of decision-making: satisficing and maximizing.

When we satisfy, we choose the option that is ‘good enough’, which produces an acceptable outcome (Nyland, 2004; Parker, deBruin, & Fischnoff, 2007).

When we maximize, we strive for the high standards of achievement and choose the best possible option (Parker, deBruin, & Fischnoff, 2007: Polman, 2010).

One of the strong effects of both these styles is their link to positive or negative perfectionism (Bubic, 2015; Nyland, 2004).

The human experience of perfectionism has been placed into the limelight of psychology research over the years. Studies have focused on answering the questions of why, how and what causes people to pursue the quest for perfection (Bubic, 2015).


A Closer Look at Maximizer Decision-Making

Good decision-making often refers to when people strive for the best possible outcome, thereby promoting a culture of ambitious go-getters who reap rewards for their efforts.

However, research does not support this belief and has actually found that maximizers have lower levels of life satisfaction, happiness, optimism and self-esteem (Bubic, 2015; Diab, Gillespie & Highhouse, 2008; Nyland, 2004; Schwartz et al., 2002). This is due to the many cognitive challenges involved in the maximizing process.

People who “maximize” tend to rely on external influences such as upward social comparisons and external validation, and thus experience regret and anxiety over what ‘might have been’ (Parker, deBruin, & Fischnoff, 2007).

Polman’s (2010) study found that even though maximizers are better at decision-making, their experience of these outcomes is worse.

A study of college graduates, who self-identified as maximizers, found that they were 20% more likely to obtain a higher paid job than satisficers; this is largely due to their extensive and exhaustive efforts for the best possible option (Parker, deBruin, & Fischnoff, 2007).

However, those same maximizers also reported less job satisfaction, as they purely focused on the external features (salary) and disregarded other important features of job satisfaction (Parker, deBruin, & Fischnoff, 2007).

Maximizing has also been linked to a rising problem of perfectionism.


Maximizers and the Link to Negative Perfectionism

Research has found that the maximizing style of decision-making has a strong link to negative perfectionism (Bubic, 2015; Nyland, 2004).

“Negative perfectionists tend to set unrealistic and unattainable goals, and do not experience self-compassion and self-acceptance when these goals are not met”(Nyland, 2004).

Maximizers often exhibit trait anxiety and anguish over not having better outcomes and thus have lower life satisfaction due to their inability to reach these high standards (Nyland, 2004; Zhang, Yiqun & Cham, 2007).

The debilitating experience of burnout and emotional exhaustion is associated with these negative perfectionists due to the persistent cognitive overload of self-criticism and social comparison (Zhang, Yiqun & Chan, 2007).


The Benefits of Satisficer Decision-Making

As mentioned earlier, satisfice decision-making style is the process of accepting an outcome that is ‘good enough’ (Parker, deBruin & Fischnoff, 2007).

These types of people place their options on a scale or “acceptability threshold” (Schwartz, 2002). The pursuit of the ‘good enough’ option generally exceeds the acceptability threshold ever so slightly thus producing the ‘good enough’ positive outcome.

They still set high goals, but strive for adequacy, rather than the ideal which preserves a lot of cognitive effort and the potential for a stress blowout (Diab, Gillespie & Highhouse, 2008).

These people are often perceived as somewhat lazy or that they are settling. But psychology literature has found no statistically significant links between depression, anxiety and low life satisfaction in contrast to the maximizing style of decision-making (Nyland, 2004).

Satisficers and Positive Perfectionism

Satisfice decision-makers are considered positive perfectionists.

Similar to negative perfectionists, they strive for high standards however they experience satisfaction regardless of whether their goals are met (Nyland, 2004).

A significant relationship has also been found between positive perfectionism and life satisfaction (Nyland, 2004).

The component that divides satisficers and maximizers is the degree of acceptability and adaptability. Satisficers accept the decisions that they have made (even if it was the ‘wrong’ one), and can also adapt and alter their goals to a more realistic level.

They are simply just more flexible and have less ‘fixed’ mindsets.

Positive perfectionists, like satisficers, have the capacity to adapt when it comes to setting goals, and will ‘lower the bar’ without beating themselves up (Zhang, Yiqun & Chan, 2007).

The Take Home Message

Setting high standards for ourselves does not necessarily lead to negative outcomes. It is all about how we go about dealing with this process.

As long as our desired outcomes are realistic, attainable, and focused on internal rewards we are heading in the right direction. If our goals are not met, we usually experience negative emotions and emotional weariness.

What seems to really matter is if we have the potential to accept these limitations, be compassionate with ourselves and be flexible in accepting our reality. If we are all capable of being happy, healthy beings, we might feel satisfied with “where we are” and not preoccupied with “what we ought to be” in the perfect world.

“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen

Do you identify as a maximizer or satisfice decision-maker? Has that changed for you over the trajectory of your career and life pursuits?

We would love to hear your thoughts in our comments section below.

Bubic, A. (2015). The role of perfectionism and emotional regulation in explaining decision-making styles. Drustrena Istraziranja, 24(1), 69-87

Diab, D.L., Gillespie, M.A., & Highhouse, S. (2008). Are maximizers really unhappy? The measurement of maximizing tendency. Judgment and decision-making, 3(5), 364-370.

Iyengar, S.S., Wells, R.E., & Schwartz, B. (2006). Doing better but feeling worseL Looking for the “best” job undermines satisfaction. Psychological Science, 17(2), 143-150.

Nyland, J.E. (2004) Dysfunctional cognitions: Associations with perfectionist thinking utilizing the positive and negative perfectionism construct. McNair Scholars Journal, 8(1), 61-68.

Parker, A.M., deBruin, W.B., & Fischnoff, B. (2007). Maximizers versus satisficers: decision-making styles, competence, and outcomes. Judgement and decision-making, 2(6), 342-350.

Polman, E. (2010) Why are maximizers less happy than satisficers? Because they maximize positive and negative outcomes. Journal of Behavioral decision-making, 23(2), 179-190

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyumbomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D.R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing. Happiness is a matter of choise. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178-1197.

Zhang, Y., Yiqun, G., & Chan, H. (2007). Perfectionism, academic burnout and engagement among Chinese college students: A structural equation modeling analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 1529-1540.

About the Author

Justine Curwen is currently a third year psychology student at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. This piece is a version of a research proposal she wrote during the Positive Psychology course at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. This course fueled her passion for concepts such as self-compassion, positive mindsets, and mindfulness practice. She intends on pursuing these interests further in her postgraduate studies.


  1. gideon kyei

    thanx justine at least we know we shouldnt bite more than we can chew and if by mistake bit more than we could chew lets us relax and chew it slowly till it get finished in our mouth…..

  2. Rajat Shah

    Amazing Article. I love this and it is helping me change my ‘perfectionist’ i.e Negative Perfectionist tendencies- thank you!

  3. Svetlana Salovska

    Excellent article! Congratulations! It sparkled my interest in self-compasion and mindfulness!


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