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  • Daniel Stern Serviansky

Maximizers and Satisficers in Dealmaking and Conflict Resolution

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

{3 minutes to read} When negotiating, it is important to ask yourself whether you are doing so as a maximizer or a satisficer. (These terms are from positive psychology, starting with the work of Martin Seligman. I first encountered them in The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Note that I am using the term “satisficing” differently than Leigh Thompson does in the Truth About Negotiation, where she uses it to mean “sub-optimizing.”)

A maximizer is someone who wants to get as much as possible. If you are negotiating for money and you ask a maximizer how much money they are trying for, they will say, "as much as possible." If you ask them how they will know they have reached their goal, they will not have a specific answer but will instead talk about pushing until it seems that you pushed as far as you can go.

In contrast, a satisficer is someone who decides what they are trying to get and stops negotiating once they get it. In other words, a satisficer will (rigorously) set criteria, and, once they negotiate up to the criteria they set, they will accept the deal and are happy to do so.

There is an interesting conflict in society relating to this continuum between maximizing and satisficing. To the positive psychologists, it is clear that the goal is to be a satisficer. Studies tell us that one of the secrets to happiness is knowing what you want, stopping when you get it, and being satisfied with that.

On the other hand, you have the general stance that people take in conflict or litigation, which is to treat the process as analogous to total war. For people in this posture, the goal is to grab as much as you can. Again, to the positive psychologists, the answer is easy. If you are doing that, you will never be satisfied. It is not a recipe for happiness.

So putting aside positive psychology, what do we do in conflict? If you are negotiating for yourself, you have to set objective criteria. Then you have to be honest with yourself about whether you are going to be happy once you reach those criteria. This will serve you in one of two ways. If you can be happy having reached your goal, then you have a recipe for a successful negotiation. But, what happens if you realize that you are a maximizer in a given situation? You still need those objective criteria because you are going to have to monitor your feelings. You have an impulse to maximize that stands in the way of knowing when to stop, but you still want to engage in a productive pursuit. Given the transaction costs of endless fighting, you should know when it is in your interest to stop. It will not make you happy as a maximizer, but it might make you successful in that situation.

Daniel Serviansky


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