Are you satisficing? How people REALLY make decisions

October 30, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Psychology 

Satisficing is a decision-making strategy.Every copywriter knows how people makes buying decisions.

Someone reads your copy. You pile on benefits and sales arguments. Fact by fact, people carefully evaluate the pros and cons of buying. If you present your information in just the right way, you will convince people to want and buy whatever widget you’re selling.


Boy do I have a surprise for you. Because that’s not at all how people make buying decisions. In fact, that’s not how people make any kind of decision.

Let me introduce you to “satisficing.”

This word is a portmanteau, a combination of two words: “satisfying” and “sufficing.”

Carnegie Mellon professor Herbert Simon coined this word in 1957 in his book Models of man: Social and rational. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the concept:

… 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.

That’s pretty academic, but it basically means that people don’t use a systematic process to find the best solution. They simply seek the first solution that is good enough.

Wikipedia gives an excellent 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.

The human brain isn’t concerned about finding THE solution, only A solution. The first that meets the needs of a given situation is the one selected.

How does this apply to copywriting? It flies in the face of the idea that people make decisions logically and that your goal as a copywriter is to “convince” people to buy something, to change their mind from not wanting it to wanting it.

We tend to think that people are reasonable and rational. So we assume that when people are faced with making a decision, they will gather all the facts, consider all possible solutions, then logically choose the best. But studies show this is rarely how people make decisions in real-world situations.

Whatever decisions people make are made instantaneously and based on an immediate emotional reaction, a want or need. The only mental work people do is rationalizing why the purchase should or should not be made.

The implications for writing copy should be obvious. You must grab attention and interest almost instantly, not through clever copy and artful design but through clear, relevant words and visuals that align with existing wants and needs.

Then you must provide enough information to allow the person to conclude that their want or need is justified, that there is little or no risk, and that a purchase is wise.

In other words, you don’t “convince” people to buy something. You present something they already want and remove all the perceived barriers to buying. For most products and services, people won’t survey all possible options. They will go with the first option that seems reasonable.

Your job as a copywriter is to satisfy people by showing the product is sufficient and will suffice. Thus satisficing.

Make sense? This is one of those things that may take time to sink in, but once you get it, your approach to copywriting will forever change.

Related posts:

  1. The hidden motivators that make people buy stuff

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