Evolutionist, CNRS, Santa Fe Institute, Institute for Advanced Study Toulouse

Herbert Simon contributed importantly to our understanding of a number of problems in a wide array of disciplines, one which is the notion of achievement. Achievement depends not only on ability and the problem at hand (including information available and the environment), but also one’s motivation and targets. Two of Simon’s many insights were how much effort it takes to become an “expert” at an endeavor requiring a special skill (using chess as a model, the answer is—very approximately—10,000 hours), and how objectives are accomplished: whether individuals maximize, optimize, or rather accept or even seek an apparently lesser outcome, that is, satisfice.  

Satisficing recognizes constraints on time, capacity and information, and the risk and consequences of failure. In Simon’s own words from his 1956 paper on the subject: “…the organism, like those of the real world, has neither the senses nor the wits to discover an 'optimal' path—even assuming the concept of optimal to be clearly defined—we are concerned only with finding a choice mechanism that will lead it to pursue a 'satisficing' path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all of its needs.”  

Will a marginal increase in effort result in an acceptable increase in achievement? It is evidently unusual to be so calculating when deciding how to commit to an endeavor, competitive or not. In a non-competitive task, such as reading a book, we may be time limited or constrained by background knowledge. Beyond completing the task, there is no objective measure of achievement. At the other extremefor example competing in the 100m dashit’s not only about victory and performance relative to other contestants in the race itself, but also outcomes relative to past and even future racesEffort is maximizefrom start to finish 

Obviously, many endeavors are more complex than these and do not easily lend to questioning the default objectives of maximization or optimization. Evolutionary thinking is a useful framework in this regard for gaining a richer understanding of the processes at work. Consider the utility of running speed for a predator (me) trying to catch a prey item. I could muster that extra effort to improve on performance, but at what costFor example, if were to run as fast as I possibly could after a prey itemthen, should I fail, not only would I miss my dinner, but might also need to wait to recover the energy to run again. In running at full speed over an uneven terrain, I would also risk injury, and could become dinner for another predator. 

But, endeavors not only have risks, they also have constraints, or what evolutionists refer to as “tradeoffs.” Tradeoffs, such as between running speed and endurance, may appear simple, but imagine trying to adapt running speed to preserve endurance so as to catch any prey item seen, regardless of prospects of actually catching and subduing it. It’s likely that time and effort are wasted, resulting in insufficient numbers of prey caught overall; but it is also possible that more are caught than needed, meaning less time spent on other important tasks. A satisficer only chases after enough of the easier to catch prey to satisfy basic needs and so can spend more time on other useful tasks.  

I believe that satisficing should be more widely known, because it is a different way of looking at nature in general, and on certain facets of human endeavorMore, higher, faster is better only up to a point, and perhaps only in a small number of contexts. Indeed, it is a common misconception that natural selection optimizes or maximizes whatever it touches—the evolutionary mantra “survival of the fittest” can be misleading. Rather, the evolutionary process tends to favor more fit genetic alternatives, and the capacity to perform will vary between individuals. Winners will sometimes be losers and vice versa. Most finish somewhere in-between, and for some, this is success. 

We humans will increasingly satisfice because our environments are becoming ever richer, more complex and more challenging to process. Some may fear that satisficing will create a world of laziness, apathy, sub-standard performance, and economic stagnationOn the contrary, if norms in satisficing embody certain standardsthen satisficing could lead to a ratcheting-up of individual wellbeingsocial stability, and contribute to sustainability.