DUBNER: How would you like to work at a podcast, young lady?
DUCKWORTH: Is that the question?
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: when it comes to decision-making, is it better to maximize or satisfice?
DUBNER: Can I ask, is synonym for maximizer “pain in the ass”?
Also: what is the ideal interview question?
DUCKWORTH: “Oh, I notice you’ve got a Phillies hat on. Are you from Philadelphia?” And then all of a sudden, an hour has gone by and the interview is over.
* * *
Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela Duckworth, I have a question for you today.
Angela DUCKWORTH: Shoot.
DUBNER: I want to know whether you are a maximizer or satisficer. And why. And while you answer, I want you to explain maximizing and satisficing, where it comes from, what it means.
DUCKWORTH: I am a maximizer.
DUBNER: I had a feeling.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you knew me. So that means that when it comes to my work, I am trying to do better and better and better. That’s what maximizers do. They try to maximize.
DUBNER: Better and better and better compared to your previous self, or better compared to other people?
DUCKWORTH: Compared to my previous self. And I think that’s generally what maximizers are trying to do. Basically, they’re trying to optimize outcomes. And that’s the intuitive answer, at least the way economists think about human beings making choices. Of course, you’re trying to get the best ice cream cone, have the best outcomes.
But satisficing is a more recent idea. It comes from Nobel laureate Herb Simon. He won the Nobel Prize for economics, but he was really more of a psychologist — decision scientist. And Simon coined this term “satisficing” for a very different process. You’re not trying to get the best, or do the best, or choose the best. You’re trying to choose good enough.
DUBNER: So what’s so interesting is, even as you’re describing it, you’ve got a sneer in your voice.
DUCKWORTH: I know. I have maximizing tendencies, probably in lots of domains, especially my work. When asked, “Are you the kind of person who settles for good enough?” Every cell in my body says, “No. Why would I do that?”
DUBNER: All right. Let me transfer you virtually to a totally different domain. Let’s say you and I — we’re hungry. We’ve been working together, and we need to get a bite to eat. Do you remain a maximizer there?
DUCKWORTH: I am absolutely a maximizer. I want to know that within a certain X-block radius, I have chosen the best restaurant, including lots of parameters like price — so value for money. And not only that, Stephen, I want to know that I ordered the best thing on the menu for me at that time in my life.
DUBNER: Can I ask, is synonym for maximizer “pain in the ass”?
DUCKWORTH: I have to say, I can’t even help it. I literally say sometimes when I’m staring at a menu, “Oh, I wonder what the best thing is.” And I’m usually the one asking the waiter or the waitress, “What’s the best thing that you serve here?”
DUBNER: Whenever I ask something like that, the answer I get is, “People seem to like the chicken.” Yeah, but it’s like, what do you mean people “seem to like” it?
DUCKWORTH: It wasn’t that hard of a question. Well, Stephen, are you a satisficer? I mean, you asked me these questions like you’re suspicious of my maximizing tendencies.
DUBNER: I have to say, I’m not so surprised that you’re a maximizer, especially in a professional realm.
DUCKWORTH: And look what I study, Stephen. I study excellence.
DUBNER: And I admire you, and everybody else who wants to maximize. And it doesn’t have to be in a professional setting. If you’re a volunteer, if you’re a parent, I very much appreciate the urge to maximize. And I share that urge in many realms, some of the time. But I also really, really, really appreciate the value of satisficing.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Give me an example.
DUBNER: I’ll take our same example. You and me going out for a bite to eat.
DUCKWORTH: We’re both hungry.
DUBNER: So, now I’m starting to think about: what is the opportunity cost of maximizing? How long do we have to stand here looking on our phones to find the place that has an eighth of a star higher rating? And then, we have to debate the merits of Yelp versus whatever ratings to see, “Well, how can we tell what’s the best actual empirical evidence of this?” When I say to myself, it’s just a meal.
DUCKWORTH: And this perfectly good cart over here can serve us chicken on rice.
DUBNER: Right, let’s have some dirty-water hot dogs and be done with it. I mean, this is really about decision making. Every decision is different. If you’re talking about choosing a life partner or a vocation, let’s do some maximizing. If you’re talking about lunch, I’m okay with some satisficing. And then there are many, many things in between.
So, I was exposed to this idea of maximizing and satisficing, I don’t know, 15-20 years ago, from the psychologist Barry Schwartz. And, to me, it was a very useful concept because I do feel I’m a maximizer in certain realms, especially when it comes to work, things that I care about, or my family. But then I just started to feel like, if you think economically, I wanted to come up with categories of life where I consciously wanted to be a satisficer. And so to me, that seemed like a very logical bifurcation. So first of all, what do you have to say about his view of maximizing and satisficing as it pertains to, let’s say, happiness or satisfaction? And then let’s talk about how you can move from one realm to the other if you so desire.
DUCKWORTH: Barry is a great psychologist and he teamed up with some other psychologists and he created a scale for testing whether you are a maximizer or a satisficer and where in that continuum you fall. And on his scale, he has items like, “I never settle for second best” or, “When I watch T.V., I channel surf, scanning through available options, not easily settling on one.” And I remember reading that scale, and then quizzing myself and thinking, “Oh, my gosh! I answered maximizer for every single one.”
And then when I read the article it was a little worrisome, because it turns out that, in general, it’s the satisficers who are happier. They may not have more money, but they actually might feel okay about that. They’re more likely to be satisfied with their work, etc. So, to me, when I finished that article, I thought, “Well, I guess there are tradeoffs.” So, high standards, maybe on objective grounds things are better, but you don’t feel good. And I didn’t change my mind about being a maximizer. I didn’t think, “Oh, I should be more satisficing.”
DUBNER: There must be some areas in which you’re a satisficer.
DUCKWORTH: Well, look, I am a satisficer when it comes to physical exercise. I’m not the sort of person who’s trying to get better in any athletic domain.
DUBNER: You just want to tick the box. I got my exercise done.
DUCKWORTH: I think it was Ben Franklin who said that if you exercise to the point where you’re a little warm, you just raised your body temperature by two or three degrees, you’ve probably had a workout. And I’m in that camp.
DUBNER: You think Ben Franklin said that?
DUCKWORTH: He didn’t really look very fit. Didn’t he die of gout? Okay, so, I’m a satisficer, whether for good or for bad, when it comes to my physical exercise regime. I’m not optimizing there.
DUBNER: And is that because that’s an activity that you enjoy less, that you assign less importance to?
DUCKWORTH: I think it must be in part because I don’t care. I don’t want to die.
DUBNER: Well, you’re going to. Hate to give away the end of the story.
DUCKWORTH: But maybe I’ll die a little later because I’m getting my little middle-aged workout in during the day sometimes. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else I don’t care about. There’s so many domains in my life like what I would cook for our family dinner tonight, the emails that I write, my professional life. I’m hard-pressed to find many domains in my life where I don’t care.
I think you have the right answer, though, which is, it’s probably good to be deliberate. Where am I going to be a maximizer? And because it is exhausting and time is finite, where am I going to give a little? I’m just struggling to figure out which of the domains — can you help me?
DUBNER: How about this? You say that you’re a maximizer even when it comes to your next meal. What if you take one meal a day and try to be a satisficer for that meal?
DUCKWORTH: Just a “good enough” person.
DUBNER: And say, “You know what? Rather than spend the time thinking about this, trying to optimize, I’m going to eat the first thing that looks decent.” And see how that feels.
DUCKWORTH: Would you really do that?
DUBNER: Would I do that? Oh, I do that all the time. I love food. But there are times when I say, “I’ve been working really hard. I’m so hungry, I’m getting a headache. I need to eat.” If there’s the choice between, I could order from the Japanese place and get a really nice, robust, healthy, delicious thing, or I can eat the can of sardines and get back to my work —
DUCKWORTH: You’re going to go with sardines?
DUBNER: I’m going to go sardines maybe two out of four times.
DUCKWORTH: Or one out of two times. That would be another way to put it. Or five out of 10 times!
DUBNER: Bad with fractions. Good with sardines.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Look, I’m sure I’m just ignoring all the areas in my life where I’m satisficing. Maybe that’s a feature of satisficing; you don’t think about this choice very much. That’s the point of satisficing. You save time and energy.
DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this. I believe Barry Schwartz wrote about the fact that people tend to become more satisficers as they get older.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. He did. He thinks that’s why we get happier. Our standards go south.
DUBNER: I think there’s a different way of looking at it. It’s not that you settle. I think it’s about choosing to care less about things that matter less.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It’s a little more Buddhist. It’s not just that you’re settling, but you’ve unchained yourself. Barry Schwartz also believes that, in so many ways, the idea of having more choices, maximizing our choices, these things that are supposed to lead to greater and greater happiness. They don’t. And that in some cases, having 24 kinds of jam to choose from would be worse than having, say, three kinds of jam to choose from, in terms of your happiness.
DUBNER: So this is the “paradox of choice” illustration. And it was based on a real experiment in California where all these jars of jam — and when there were 24, shoppers would look more and buy less. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happier to have jam.
DUCKWORTH: It’s a contentious area of literature. But there are certainly some research studies that suggest that when you come home with your jam, after deliberating, you’re actually less happy with your jam, relative to others. Different study, just using jam as the example.
DUBNER: Okay, so let me ask you one last question. I’ve asked you to envision yourself trying to move in one realm from maximizing to satisficing by eating whatever shows up for breakfast tomorrow. What about the opposite? Now, you don’t have this problem, but let’s say somebody out there is listening and saying, “You know what? I hear Angela talking about this, and I never really thought about satisficing versus maximizing. I’ve satisficed a lot, and I’m not happy with it. I want to learn to maximize.” So do you have any advice for a would-be maximalist?
DUCKWORTH: Well, it might be off-putting to think, “Wow, living life like a maximizer, that sounds exhausting. Sounds like a world of unhappiness.” But maybe I could just offer my own personal experience, which is: I wake up every day. I want it to be better than the day before. And I do understand why people from the outside would say it’s exhausting, but I find it exhilarating. And maybe if I could just share with people that they might say, “Today, just for one day, let me try it as a maximizer. And if I don’t like it, I can retreat into my little satisficing shell.”
DUBNER: She says derisively.
DUCKWORTH: All warm and safe.
DUBNER: So you’re saying that you find your maximizing very satisfying, more satisfying than satisficing, and that if satisficers would try to maximize more, they would find that their satisfaction might also rise by leaving behind satisficing?
DUCKWORTH: They might.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: what kind of job interview questions are really worth asking?
DUBNER: How many golfers? How many balls do you use?
DUCKWORTH: What’s the age range that plays golf?
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question about interviews.
DUBNER: Interviews like interviewing for a job or interviewing people for journalism?
DUCKWORTH: Of course, I must specify. I’m talking to Stephen Dubner. Job interviews. And in this case, I am not looking for a job. I am hiring people. So, I’ve been doing job interviews.
DUBNER: This is an academic — a research position?
DUCKWORTH: New people to work at Character Lab. And here’s my question for you: what is the best job interview question you have ever asked?
DUBNER: So I’m not a manager person. But I do like questions that have a little bit of logic, a little bit of numeracy, and a little bit of just watching someone think. So, here’s one question I read a long time ago that I loved. I’ll just ask you. Angela, I’m interviewing you. Let’s say it’s for Freakonomics Radio. How would you like to work at a podcast, young lady?
DUCKWORTH: Is that the question? The answer would be yes.
DUBNER: So here’s the question. Let’s say one day you’re riding to work on the subway or the bus and you see someone sitting near you. Let’s say a middle-aged woman and she’s reading. She’s got her nose buried in this book, and she’s got her hair drawn back, and these thick glasses, and right next to her she’s got a big tote bag filled with more books. What’s more likely, that she is a librarian or a salesperson?
DUCKWORTH: This is like a Danny Kahneman question, right?
DUBNER: It’s a Danny Kahneman type of question.
DUCKWORTH: So, I’m supposed to answer with base rates. So I have to think that there are more salespeople than there are librarians.
DUBNER: Many more.
DUCKWORTH: And therefore, that person is more likely a salesperson, even though there is this salient cue: books, librarian — must be a librarian. So I’m going to go with salesperson.
DUBNER: So, I would be much more likely to want to hire you now, just because you know what base rate means, for one. And for those who don’t know who Danny Kahneman is and what he’s done, just describe a bit, please.
DUCKWORTH: Danny Kahneman is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, even though he’s a world-class psychologist.
DUBNER: He’s one of a handful of economics prize winners who is not an economist.
DUBNER: So, to many people when you ask them that question, it’s plainly a leading question. You’re plainly trying to not have it be a librarian. But then what you want someone to do is talk it through and get to the logic. So, the logic is pretty simple. And then you want to hear how numerate people are. So the fact is, there are something like 150 librarians in America and 18 million salespeople. So, the odds are that any given person who happens to be reading a book and they look a little bit studious, even if they’re female, and librarians are about 80 percent female, even so — they used to be about 50/50, by the way, if you go back 100 years.
DUCKWORTH: If you said all that in an interview, I would be like, “Wow. This person is not just smart and nice, they’re encyclopedic in their knowledge.”
DUBNER: But they know some stuff. Yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know what you’re reminding me of? I was finishing up a master’s degree and I decided for whatever reason —
DUBNER: Was it your master’s degree?
DUCKWORTH: It was my own master’s degree. I was at Oxford.
DUBNER: Let me help you with that, buddy.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I was not finishing up someone else’s master’s. I’m not that nice. And I decided I wanted to work at McKinsey Consulting. And I remember that the interview was all of these sort of logic/fractions problems, right? I think this was the question I was asked: how many golf balls are sold in the United States every year? And the logic part is you have to think —
DUBNER: How many golfers? How many balls do you use?
DUCKWORTH: What’s the age range that plays golf? The math part comes where you’d multiply fractions. One out of four people, whatever. That kind of question is sometimes called a Fermi question. Because, I guess, Fermi would ask these questions.
DUBNER: I bet his were better than golf balls, though.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I bet he was really good at it.
DUBNER: I think physicists ask really good questions. So do economists. So do psychologists. But I will say this. Whenever you look at the list of questions that actual H.R. people ask actual would-be employees, I’ll be honest with you, I cringe a little bit. So, here are the top five most common interview questions.
What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Why are you interested in working for our firm? Where do you see yourself in five years, 10 years? And why do you want to leave your current company? So personally, I think the strengths and weaknesses — I just think they’re not going to draw much good material. Where you’re going to be in five or 10 years —
DUCKWORTH: Of the five, I like that the best.
DUBNER: I’ve heard good answers to that. I do ask some version of that to people. I think like most people, I’m not looking for the “right” answer. I’m looking for a revealing answer. I’m looking for something that tells me in a relatively short time about character, depth, curiosity. On the other hand, I know Danny Kahneman, who you mentioned, he’s argued that when you’re interviewing, you want a structured interview. Almost a survey, really. Right?
DUCKWORTH: I think it’s not only Danny Kahneman, but there’s a consensus in social science that what’s typically done is the unstructured interview, which is like: a person walks in, you strike up a conversation, you’re like, “Oh, I notice you’ve got a Phillies hat on. Are you from Philadelphia?” And then the conversation’s a random walk through topics. And then all of a sudden, an hour has gone by and the interview is over. That’s what most interviews probably are like in America.
And the consensus in social science is: not only do they not add much predictive value to hiring the right person, but in many cases could detract value. In other words, if you hadn’t interviewed the person at all, you would have been better off as an employer.
DUBNER: Because you’re basically building up an image, a projection, based on garbage.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think the idea is this. You can come out of an hour-long interaction with another human being with a really strong, visceral, and emotional liking or disliking for that person. And then you could overweight it. You can ignore things like, “Well, the resume is not so strong. And I don’t know, the recommendations were iffy. But God, we had this great conversation about the Phillies.”
DUBNER: So, for what it’s worth, when we hire at Freakonomics Radio or associated projects, we just do mostly written homework. We ask them, “Tell us about an episode that you liked of ours and why. And tell us an episode you thought was really bad and why.”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I like that.
DUBNER: Oh, thanks. I’m glad you approve. We should have probably run these by you before we started using them. And then we ask for some other homework, like to propose some ideas and how you’d go about executing them, and so on.
DUCKWORTH: So like you, I’m pretty skeptical that interviews are going to add a lot of value in the decision process. And like Danny Kahneman, and many others, I worry that they could actually provide negative value. And what you just proposed, which is, of course, not an interview question per se, it’s really something else. I think that’s called a work sample. And I think there’s like a mountain of research showing that unlike unstructured interviews, work samples — which are just like, “Hey, you’re going to have to do X. Could you do a little of X now? And let me see how it goes.” Those are really good.
DUBNER: And I recognize that, the world being as diverse as it is, every job is different. Every industry is different. You can’t always get that. But when I was hired by The New York Times many years ago, the size of the work sample was unbelievable.
DUCKWORTH: What did they ask you to do? Do you remember?
DUBNER: So, I was interviewing for an editor at the Sunday magazine. I don’t remember all the details, but I had to propose a number of story ideas. Attached to each idea, a writer that I would want to assign and conceive that whole thing. But then there was also just a lot of editing. So I would be given manuscripts of eight or 10 thousand words and you’d be given just a paper copy. So, you can’t use Microsoft Word track changes, not Google doc.
DUCKWORTH: Like a red pencil.
DUBNER: So the first thing I did was I made about 10 photocopies because I knew it was going to take many drafts to get it where my comments were good. Then your comments are handwritten all over it. And then you’re taping pieces of paper into the margins for where you need to handwrite another 200 words.
And then you’re having all these arrow diagrams to show no, this paragraph that’s now appearing at the beginning of the third section needs to actually be the first paragraph of the second section. So basically, I did probably a week or two’s worth of editing just to get to the third of what turned out to be seven interviews. To me, that makes a lot of sense.
DUCKWORTH: I think the logic is if you’re going to ask someone to be an editor, why don’t you see how they edit. As opposed to: let’s see if I can have a 45-minute conversation with them.
DUBNER: So, if you were interviewing yourself, or if you could choose, what’s the one question you would be most excited to be asked?
DUCKWORTH: You know the question, and this is really meta, so I hope it doesn’t explode your brain, but if I were interviewing someone, I would ask them this question: tell me the question that I should ask you that’s going to make me hire you. And I actually got this idea from someone who I did hire and is fantastic. He runs Character Lab. And he said if I had asked him,
“Will you eat, breathe, drink, and sleep your work?” He would have said, “100 percent.” And, metaphorically, he does.
DUBNER: I have to say, if you were not a mid-career, accomplished, big-name professor at the University of Pennsylvania, I would definitely offer you a job.
DUCKWORTH: At least a summer internship.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Angela says that Ben Franklin was an advocate for mild exercise. Franklin was an avid swimmer and, as a boy, he built flippers to propel himself through the water. Remarkably, in 1968, Franklin was post-humously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. However, he did struggle with health issues and suffered from obesity. He developed gout, which he personified in a satirical conversation entitled Dialogue Between Franklin and Gout. In the piece, Franklin says to Gout, “It is not fair to say I take no exercise, when I do very often, going out to dine and returning in my carriage.” The disease was not ultimately his cause of death, as Angela surmised. Franklin died of pleurisy at his home in Philadelphia in 1790.
During Stephen’s “librarian or salesperson” hypothetical, he says that there are 18 million salespeople in the United States, which is about right. But then he says there are only about 150 librarians. Clearly, Stephen was misspeaking. It would be a very sad world if we only had three librarians per state. So, apologies to the librarians of the country. Stephen likely meant to guess 150,000 librarians, which is roughly accurate.
Finally, Angela refers to the question, “How many golf balls are sold in the United States each year,” which, in case you’re curious, is about 30 million. She called the question a “Fermi question.” A Fermi question is a quickly calculated estimate of something that’s hard to measure directly. It’s named for the famous physicist Enrico Fermi, who was known for his impressive ability to quickly approximate difficult scientific calculations. The Drake equation is one famous example of a Fermi question. The Drake equation tries to determine the likelihood that we’ll make contact with intelligent alien lifeforms by estimating the number of actively communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. So, in case you’re asked to do this at your next job interview, just multiply the average rate of star formation in our galaxy by the fraction of those stars that have planets by the average number of planets per solar system with an environment suitable for life by the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop civilizations by the fraction of civilizations that develop technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space by the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space. I’m glad Freakonomics Radio relies on work samples, because if they had asked that question, I would be out of a job. That’s it for the fact-check.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us Twitter @NSQ_Show. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela mention a person or a study that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we provide links to all the major references you heard here today. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: Well, look, I’m just one person.
DUBNER: No, you’re not.
DUCKWORTH: I’m two people. Well, that’s a whole other conversation — I could have with myself.
* * *
Relevant References & Research
Question #1: Is it better to be a maximizer or a satisficer?
- Angela explains that psychologist Herb Simon coined the term “satisficing.” Simon explores the idea in his 1947 book Administrative Behaviour.
- Stephen says that psychologist Barry Schwartz introduced him to the concepts of “maximizing” and “satisficing.” Schwartz developed a simple test to assess a person’s decision-making orientation. The higher your score, the more of a maximizer you are.
- Angela mentions that Schwartz found that, in general, satisficers are happier than maximizers. He writes about this in his 2002 article for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice.”
- Stephen and Angela discuss the “paradox of choice” as it relates to jam selection. The jam experiment is originally from a 2000 study by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Schwartz addresses the study in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.
- You can learn more about “the paradox of choice” in Freakonomics Radio Ep. 359, “Should America Be Run by … Trader Joe’s?”
* * *
Question #2: What is the best interview question?
- Angela shares that she had recently been hiring academic researchers for Character Lab. Character Lab is Angela’s nonprofit organization that explores the conditions that lead to social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being for young people throughout the country.
- Angela refers to Stephen’s librarian-versus-salesperson hypothetical as a “Danny Kahneman” question. Kahneman is a professor emeritus at Princeton and a Nobel laureate in economics.
- Stephen explains that Kahneman favors a structured job interview. You can read Kahneman’s full argument for structured interviews in his 2011 New York Times bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
- If you can’t get enough Kahneman, we recommend listening to Freakonomics Radio Ep. 306, “How to Launch a Behavior-Change Revolution,” which features both Danny Kahneman and Angela Duckworth!