Maximizing is better (for your happiness) in the moral rather than material domain.

Whenever I bring up the concept of maximizing (“never settling for less than the best”), the discussion inevitably evolves into thinking about what domains a given person maximizes in.  For example, I definitely don’t maximize in terms of my clothing choices, but am more of a maximizer in my career choice.  Actually, even within my career choice, I maximize for some characteristics (sense of purpose, geography, autonomy) more than others (stability, income).

Still, even as this distinction has been pointed out in Barry Schwartz’s original book and in subsequent papers, I am not aware of anyone who has attempted to measure maximizing in specific domains (please comment/email me if you know of such research, as I’m guessing that it’s out there).  Here is a quote from a recent paper:

Although content-free items have several advantages, specific examples may be needed to measure domain specific maximizing tendency, i.e., individual maximizing tendency within particular domains such as consumer purchase. Future research needs to address whether there are systematic variations between individuals’ global maximizing tendency and their propensity for maximizing within given decision making domains, based on for example the degree of involvement.

To answer this question, I modified the original maximizer-satisficer scale and gave the resulting questionnaire to both a sample at yourmorals.org and to a sample of USC students.  Below are the reliability coefficients, which won’t mean a lot to many people who read this, but are useful in determining if it really is possible to measure domain specific maximizing, simply by taking the original scale’s questions and tweaking them to be specific to a domain (e.g. instead of “I never settle for 2nd best”, change the question to “In picking a place to live, one should never settle for 2nd best”).  More interesting are the domain specific correlations with the satisfaction with life scale, a measure of “happiness”.

The reliabilities are fair, meaning that the domain specific scales measure the constructs decently, but not extremely well.  Better measures usually have reliabilities around .8.  Still, the domain specific measures are comparable to the original scale’s reliabilities and the test-retest reliability (asking people the same question a month later) also is similar.  I think the fair reliabilities are a result of the fact that maximizing (Nenkov et. al) has since been shown to have multiple dimensions: the search for alternatives, having high standards, and having difficulty making decisions (see this paper).

Beyond reliabilities, I think the best argument for domain specific maximizing is the pragmatic reliability, meaning whether maximizing in different domains predicts different outcomes.  From the correlations above, you can see that maximizing in the material/physical domain (shopping, work, a place to live) has negative consequences for life satisfaction, while maximizing in the moral and political decision making domains does not (bold values are significant, click on the graph to zoom in).  This is consistent across both samples.  In addition, I asked the USC students how much they liked where they live, and the “place to live” subscale had the highest negative relationship (-.33, p<.001) to liking where they lived, followed by shopping (r=-.22) and work (r=-.22).  Maximizing in relationships, political decision making and moral decision making were unrelated.  At the very least, I think this is good evidence that maximizing is at least different in moral/political decision making versus in consumer decision making.  Incidentally, maximizing had a long history in moral philosophy, before it became popular in psychology to think of it in terms of consumption.

One issue with my original scale construction is that I did it before Nenkov’s paper that deconstructed maximizing came out, so I did not evenly pick items across subscales.  To make sure that the findings above aren’t just because of item selection, I ran some analyses for specific matched items that existed in all domain specific scales.

Again, bold values are significant and we see negative correlations only for alternative search questions only in the material domain.  This replicates Nenkov’s finding in that having high standards does not relate to lower life satisfaction, but always searching for alternatives, no matter how satisfied one is, does relate to lower life satisfaction.  However, it appears that this is true only in the material domain (shopping, career, a place to live) and not in moral and political decision making.

Lastly, the case of maximizing in relationships is interesting.  The above data isn’t conclusive, but it converges with another pattern I’ve seen when comparing USC students to our YourMorals.org sample.  Specifically, relationships appear to play a greater role in happiness in the general population rather than in our student samples.  Perhaps loneliness is a bigger issue in the real world than it is within the college campus environment.  Or perhaps paying attention to alternatives in relationships is less adaptive as you get older.

- Ravi Iyer

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