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Satisficing, a portmanteau "combining satisfy with suffice", is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution. A satisficing strategy may often be (near) optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the outcome calculus.

The word satisfice was coined by Herbert Simon
Herbert Simon
Herbert Alexander Simon was an American political scientist, economist, sociologist, and psychologist, and professor—most notably at Carnegie Mellon University—whose research ranged across the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, computer science, public administration, economics,...

 in 1956. He pointed out that human beings lack the cognitive resources to maximize
Optimal decision
An optimal decision is a decision such that no other available decision options will lead to a better outcome. It is an important concept in decision theory. In order to compare the different decision outcomes, one commonly assigns a relative utility to each of them...

: we usually do not know the relevant probabilities of outcomes, we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision, and our memories are weak and unreliable. A more realistic approach to rationality takes into account these limitations: This is called bounded rationality
Bounded rationality
Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision...


"Satisficing" can also be regarded as combining "satisfying" and "sacrificing." In this usage the satisficing solution satisfies some criteria and sacrifices others.

Some consequentialist
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

 theories in moral philosophy use the concept of satisficing in the same sense, though most call for optimization instead.


The word originated as an alternative spelling of the transitive verb "satisfy" in the 16th Century (influenced by the Latin "satisfacére"). Use of the word in this sense had become obsolete except in northern dialects of England when Simon reintroduced it as an intransitive verb with its new meaning in the mid 20th Century.

Cybernetics and artificial intelligence

In cybernetics
Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems. Cybernetics is closely related to information theory, control theory and systems theory, at least in its first-order form...

, satisficing is optimization
Optimization (mathematics)
In mathematics, computational science, or management science, mathematical optimization refers to the selection of a best element from some set of available alternatives....

 where 'all' costs, including the cost of the optimization calculations themselves and the cost of getting information for use in those calculations, are considered."

As a result, the eventual choice is usually sub-optimal in regard to the main goal of the optimization, i.e., different from the optimum in the case that the costs of choosing are not taken into account.

During a 1997 chess game against Deep Blue, Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov
Garry Kimovich Kasparov is a Russian chess grandmaster, a former World Chess Champion, writer, political activist, and one of the greatest chess players of all time....

, after being defeated in a game where his computer opponent adopted a satisficing position, remarked that the computer was "playing like a human." Kasparov later explained that, when playing computers, chess
Chess is a two-player board game played on a chessboard, a square-checkered board with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. It is one of the world's most popular games, played by millions of people worldwide at home, in clubs, online, by correspondence, and in tournaments.Each player...

 masters could often defeat them by predicting the most "rational" move; however, satisficing made such a prediction unreliable.

Decision making

In decision making, satisficing explains the tendency to select the first option that meets a given need or select the option that seems to address most needs rather than the “optimal” solution.
Example: A task is to sew a patch onto a pair of jeans. The best needle to do the threading is a 4 inch long needle with a 3 millimeter eye. This needle is hidden in a haystack along with 1000 other needles varying in size from 1 inch to 6 inches. Satisficing claims that the first needle that can sew on the patch is the one that should be used. Spending time searching for that one specific needle in the haystack is a waste of energy and resources.

Simon, as a further example, once explained satisficing to his students by describing a mouse searching for cheese in a maze. The mouse might begin searching for a piece of Gouda, but unable to find any would eventually be "satisfied" and could "suffice" with any piece of cheese, such as cheddar.

Satisficing occurs in consensus building when the group looks towards a solution everyone can agree on even if it may not be the best.
Example: A group spends hours projecting the next fiscal year's budget. After hours of debating they eventually reach a consensus, only to have one person speak up and ask if the projections are correct. When the group becomes upset at the question, it is not because this person is wrong to ask, but rather because they have come up with a solution that works. The projection may not be what will actually come, but the majority agrees on one number and thus the projection is good enough to close the book on the budget.

In many circumstances, the individual may be uncertain about what constitutes a satisfactory outcome. For example, an individual who only seeks a satisfactory retirement income may not know what level of wealth is required—given uncertainty about future prices—to ensure a satisfactory income. In this case, the individual can only evaluate outcomes on the basis of their probability of being satisfactory.

If the individual chooses that outcome which has the maximum chance of being satisfactory, then this individual's behavior is theoretically indistinguishable from that of an optimizing individual under certain conditions

Furthermore, any "satisficing" problem can be formulated as an (equivalent) optimization (maximization) problem using the characteristic function (or indicator function of the satisficing requirements as an objective function. More formally, if denotes the set of all options and denotes the set of "satisficing" options, then selecting a satisficing solution (an element of ) is equivalent to the following optimization problem

where denotes the characteristic function (indicator function) of , that is

A solution to this optimization problem is optimal if, and only if, it is a satisficing option (an element of ).

Thus, from a decision theory point of view, the distinction between "optimizing" and "satisficing" is essentially a stylistic issue (that can nevertheless be very important in certain applications) rather than a substantive issue. What is important to determine is what should be optimized and what should be satisficed.

The following quote from Jan Odhnoff's 1965 paper is appropriate:
More on the "satisficing" vs "optimizing" debate can be found in Byron's 2004 edited collection of articles.


In economics
Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek from + , hence "rules of the house"...

, satisficing is a behavior
Behavior or behaviour refers to the actions and mannerisms made by organisms, systems, or artificial entities in conjunction with its environment, which includes the other systems or organisms around as well as the physical environment...

 which attempts to achieve at least some minimum level of a particular variable
Variable (mathematics)
In mathematics, a variable is a value that may change within the scope of a given problem or set of operations. In contrast, a constant is a value that remains unchanged, though often unknown or undetermined. The concepts of constants and variables are fundamental to many areas of mathematics and...

, but which does not necessarily maximize its value. The most common application of the concept in economics is in the behavioral theory of the firm
Theory of the firm
The theory of the firm consists of a number of economic theories that describe the nature of the firm, company, or corporation, including its existence, behavior, structure, and relationship to the market.-Overview:...

, which, unlike traditional accounts, postulates that producers
Production, costs, and pricing
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to industrial organization:Industrial organization – describes the behavior of firms in the marketplace with regard to production, pricing, employment and other decisions...

 treat profit
Profit (economics)
In economics, the term profit has two related but distinct meanings. Normal profit represents the total opportunity costs of a venture to an entrepreneur or investor, whilst economic profit In economics, the term profit has two related but distinct meanings. Normal profit represents the total...

 not as a goal to be maximized, but as a constraint. Under these theories, a critical level of profit must be achieved by firms; thereafter, priority is attached to the attainment of other goals.

Survey taking

As an example of satisficing, in the field of social cognition
Social cognition
Social cognition is the encoding, storage, retrieval, and processing, in the brain, of information relating to conspecifics, or members of the same species. At one time social cognition referred specifically to an approach to social psychology in which these processes were studied according to the...

, Jon Krosnick
Jon Krosnick
Jon A. Krosnick is the Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University.Krosnick received a B.A. degree in psychology from Harvard University and M.A. and Ph.D...

 proposed a theory of statistical survey
Statistical survey
Survey methodology is the field that studies surveys, that is, the sample of individuals from a population with a view towards making statistical inferences about the population using the sample. Polls about public opinion, such as political beliefs, are reported in the news media in democracies....

 satisficing which says that optimal question answering by a survey respondent involves a great deal of cognitive work and that some people would use satisficing to reduce that burden. Some people may shortcut their cognitive processes in two ways:
  • Weak satisficing: Respondent executes all cognitive steps involved in optimizing, but less completely and with bias
    Bias is an inclination to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of alternatives. Bias can come in many forms.-In judgement and decision making:...

  • Strong satisficing: Respondent offers responses that will seem reasonable to the interviewer without any memory search or information integration.

Likelihood to satisfice is linked to respondent ability, respondent motivation
Motivation is the driving force by which humans achieve their goals. Motivation is said to be intrinsic or extrinsic. The term is generally used for humans but it can also be used to describe the causes for animal behavior as well. This article refers to human motivation...

 and task difficulty

Regarding survey answers, satisficing manifests in:
  • choosing explicitly offered no-opinion response option
  • choosing socially desirable responses
  • non-differentiation when a battery of questions asks for ratings of multiple objects on the same response scale
  • acquiescence response bias, which is the tendency to agree with any assertion, regardless of its content

See also

  • decision theory
    Decision theory
    Decision theory in economics, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and statistics is concerned with identifying the values, uncertainties and other issues relevant in a given decision, its rationality, and the resulting optimal decision...

  • Rationality
    In philosophy, rationality is the exercise of reason. It is the manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately. It also refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action...

  • rational ignorance
    Rational ignorance
    Rational ignorance occurs when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide.Ignorance about an issue is said to be "rational" when the cost of educating oneself about the issue sufficiently to make an informed decision can outweigh any...

  • alpha-beta pruning
    Alpha-beta pruning
    Alpha-beta pruning is a search algorithm which seeks to decrease the number of nodes that are evaluated by the minimax algorithm in its search tree. It is an adversarial search algorithm used commonly for machine playing of two-player games...

  • frame problem
    Frame problem
    In artificial intelligence, the frame problem was initially formulated as the problem of expressing a dynamical domain in logic without explicitly specifying which conditions are not affected by an action. John McCarthy and Patrick J. Hayes defined this problem in their 1969 article, Some...

  • utility maximization problem
    Utility maximization problem
    In microeconomics, the utility maximization problem is the problem consumers face: "how should I spend my money in order to maximize my utility?" It is a type of optimal decision problem.-Basic setup:...

  • homo economicus
    Homo economicus
    Homo economicus, or Economic human, is the concept in some economic theories of humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends...

  • principle of good enough
    Principle of good enough
    The principle of good enough is a rule for software and systems design. It favours quick-and-simple designs over elaborate systems designed by committees. Once the quick-and-simple design is deployed, it can then evolve as needed, driven by user requirements...

  • Optimism bias
    Optimism bias
    Optimism bias is the demonstrated systematic tendency for people to be overly optimistic about the outcome of planned actions. This includes over-estimating the likelihood of positive events and under-estimating the likelihood of negative events. Along with the illusion of control and illusory...

  • Portmanteau

External links