Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 11, 2020

Next! ... When Pursuit for “The Best” Can Undermine Your Romantic Relationships

by Juliana E. French
Man sitting on soaf holding remote control and bowl of popcorn looking indecisive about what to watch

Imagine the following scenario: You are at home for the evening and lounging on the couch eager to find a good movie to watch. You quickly find a movie that you’ve been wanting to see—what do you do? Do you click ‘Play’ and settle in for the cinematic experience without a care for what other movies might be available? Or do you think to yourself, “this one looks good, but I wonder what else there is…” and then keep looking?

People differ in the ways they sift through their options when making everyday decisions, from what to watch on TV and have for dinner, to even who they date. Research in psychology has shown that people tend to use one of two basic strategies as they make decisions: satisficing and maximizing.

People who satisfice tend to make decisions based on whether something meets their threshold for “good enough” without considering other options in hope of finding something better. They would likely click ‘Play’ as soon as they found a reasonably interesting movie. But people who maximize continue to go through more options, even after finding an acceptable one, to feel certain that their choice is the best possible choice. Even after finding an acceptable movie, they would be likely to hit ‘Next’, ‘Next, and ‘Next’… until they’re pretty sure that they’ve found the best one.

Research consistently shows that satisficers may be on to something—maximizers tend to experience less satisfaction and more regret with their choices.

Could this be true for marriage as well?  Are people who maximize less happy in their marriages than those who satisfice?  After all, if there is one time in life where it would seem to make sense to be very picky and make sure to make the right choice, it would be with marriage.  So is marriage an exception to the satisficing rule?

To find out, we analyzed data from 233 newlywed couples over the first three years of their marriages. Maximizers, it turns out, were not necessarily less satisfied in their marriages than satisficers. With marriage, being a maximizer isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, how happy maximizers were with their relationships depended on their partners’ characteristics. In our study, maximizing husbands were less satisfied if their wives were relatively less physically attractive, as determined by objective ratings of photographs obtained shortly after marriage.  And maximizing wives were less satisfied if their husbands reported relatively lower income. Satisficers’ satisfaction, on the other hand, was not as strongly tied to their partner’s physical attractiveness or income.

Many researchers believe that the importance of partner physical attractiveness (for men) and the importance of partner status (for women) stem from evolutionary pressures that made selecting long-term partners with those traits particularly adaptive. Our research suggests that these partner characteristics may be especially important for people who tend to make decisions by maximizing.

In today’s society, the ability to rapidly and continuously peruse the pool of available relationship partners is at peoples’ fingertips. (And I don’t mean this figuratively—the use of online dating apps on mobile phones is on the rise). The internet is like a buffet for relationships, and the ease with which people can browse potential partners might make it more tempting than ever to take a maximizing approach to dating. But, according to this research, maximizing in relationships may impact the quality of some people’s love lives.

It is interesting to speculate about the implications of these findings and the questions they raise. For example—and switching gears from marriage—for people who are dating, are maximizers more likely to use dating techniques that cater to maximizers’ desires to sift through many options (such as or Tinder)? And even more broadly, do other technological advances that give us access to nearly infinite consumer options, such as Netflix and Amazon, set us up for discontent? The next time you find yourself flipping through content on Netflix or Hulu, consider whether you are maximizing or satisficing, and whether you would be more satisfied if you just clicked ‘Play’ rather than ‘Next’.

For Future Reading

 French, J. E., & Meltzer, A. L. (2019). Maximizing tendencies in marriage: Accentuating the implications of readily observable partner characteristics for intimates’ satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1468-1481.

Li, N. P., Bailey, J. M., Kenrick, D. T., & Linsenmeier, J. A. (2002). The necessities and luxuries of mate preferences: Testing the tradeoffs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology82, 947.

Meltzer, A. L., McNulty, J. K., Jackson, G. L., & Karney, B. R. (2014). Sex differences in the implications of partner physical attractiveness for the trajectory of marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology106, 418.

Yong, J. C., & Li, N. P. (2012). Cash in hand, want better looking mate: Significant resource cues raise men’s mating standards. Personality and Individual Differences53, 55-58.

Juliana E. French is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at Florida State University. She studies how people’s romantic relationships are shaped by evolutionary processes and how novel features of modern society impact them.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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