“I was brought up to appreciate the mediocre things in life. Supping on average wines, dining on the most ordinary foods the world has to offer. I've travelled to some nice places and seen sights that any person would find reasonably enjoyable.”
This tongue-in-cheek line, in a Twitter post by the British cartoonist Allain Moose is a gem, capturing in a few words the essence of what is technically known as a ‘satisficer’. For those who like technical definitions, as Wikipedia says “Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.” In other words, it’s about being prepared to make do with ‘good enough’.
Wine enthusiasts, or indeed enthusiasts in any sector are, by contrast, maximizers – at least in the context of their areas of enthusiasm. For them, getting the best really matters even if – maybe especially if – this requires a lot of effort and expense.
Maximizers can be very disdainful of satisficers, struggling, for example, to understand how anyone who can afford decent coffee would ever want to drink instant. These are the people for whom the line, ‘Life is too short to drink bad wine’ was written.
Satisficers can be just as unimpressed with the person at their table in a restaurant whose lengthy search for the ‘right’ bottle on the list, leaves their fellow guests waiting in vain for something – anything! – to drink.
This way of dividing the world is not a recent bit of marketing mumbo jumbo. It dates from the 1950s when it was devised by the US Nobel laureate Herbert Alexander Simon who has become known – among other things – as one of the fathers of artificial intelligence.
Simon, one of whose forebears was, he said, a vintner, might have been talking about the supermarket ‘wall of wine’ when he explained that
“Picking the first satisfactory alternative solves the problem of making a choice whenever (a) an enormous, or even potentially infinite, number of alternatives are to be compared and (b) the problem has so little known structure that all alternatives would have to be examined in order to determine which is optimal…“
The wine buyer choosing wine for a dinner party has other concerns that Simon understood.
“Satisficing also solves the… problem…when alternatives… numerous dimensions of value that cannot be compared… [or] affect the values of more than one person.”
Do I go for the 93-point score or the Grand Cru status or the retailer’s recommendation? And what if George likes Cabernet, but Jean prefers Pinot?
If the satisficer simply wants a glass or two of red, white or pink that will help to wash down a meal or at least some peanuts while conveying some alcohol into their bloodstream, the maximizer wins by having the finest vinous experiences.
The Road to Happiness?
But does this make them happy? Probably not, according to a 2002 study by Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White and Lehman.
“When we correlated scores…with well-established measures of well-being, we found that maximizers reported significantly less life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, and self-esteem, and significantly more regret and depression, than did satisficers.”
The report authors continue, “The potential for regret is ever present because the maximizer is asking ‘is this the best outcome?’ and ‘could I have done better?’ And in attempting to answer these questions, given the time and information-processing constraints that everyone faces, maximizers may be inclined to rely on information about how others are doing as a way of assessing whether their chosen outcomes were indeed the best.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. Categories aren’t cast in stone: wine and coffee buffs often have to put up with whatever is on offer and satisficers may occasionally have to reach for the heights. And both can find themselves reaching for an attractively-priced bottle with a 93-point score - for different reasons. But the broad-brush division is still quite useful.
Lessons to Learn?
So what lessons does any of this have for wine producers and distributors? Well, if you are selling an inexpensive wine in any volume through big retail outlets, you’d be wise to give the satisficers confidence to pick up your bottle rather than the ones next to it. Until we all became more aware of the environmental implications, one way to do this was to use a heavier bottle. Now that option is, or may soon be, off the table.
But medals work. Maximizers who know about these things mock the “Most Awarded Brand in US Wine Competitions” tag on bottles of Barefoot but, to the target audience, it offers reassurance – in the same way as “As Seen on TV” has done for other products whose brand-owners can afford television advertising.
Familiarity works too. It is generally accepted that when times get hard (as they are doing now), design studios are asked for more ‘traditional’ labels. With less cash in our pockets, more of us have to become satisficers, in at least some sectors of our lives – and less ready to take a financial risk on something that looks too different. And, because easy recognition is important to satisficers, promotion through lifestyle publications and via Instagram can also be very effective.
As, for similar reasons, for those brand owners with the budget to pay for them, are links with celebrities. ‘I like / identify with Kylie, Snoop Dogg, whoever, so I feel safe buying ‘their’ brand’.
And a Special Treatment for Maximizers
As for the Maximizers, apart from chasing all the – credible – awards and scores you can get, and providing all the arcane information they like to assemble before making a purchase, maybe it’s worth setting up a few hurdles to make the process of chasing down a wine just that little bit more challenging.
Try limiting the numbers of bottles one can buy. Introduce waiting lists. Hide some wines away in obscure parts of your website that you ensure are only known about by the select few. The people who’d never dream of appreciating the mediocre…