I was out to dinner last night with friends…..yes, ..I have friends. Things were all going well until the waiter came. If you have ever been out to dinner in company you will know how the  the complicated ritual of ordering food can all go wrong. Usually, if not always, there will be one person, lets call them person X, who just can’t decide on what to order.

Person X,  will go through some predictable behaviors. After reading he whole menu, X will put he menu down, and make light conversation. It’s a simple technique- avoidance. That works for a while. Ordering drinks can also delay proceedings and involves making a alternate lesser decision, to delay making the major critical decision.

Then X will then ask someone, usually their partner or friend what they are ordering- this is an attempt to use social proof to guide decision making. Not the best of strategies, since people have such different taste. The indecisive person however feels best when they are following the crowd, because they don’t want to be judged or appear stupid.

The waiter will come for the fourth time. The indecisive person will ask other people to order first. Then, when everyone else has order, the undecided must face the music- Finally X orders the pasta dish- X feels pressured. Almost immediately X feels regret, and wishes he had ordered better.

Struggling to order food may just be a minor irritation, but in the microcosm
of the restaurant  lies an understanding of the complexity of the human decision making process- both when it is working and when it goes astray. It is the paradox of choice.

It turns out that struggling to make decisions is a common human dilemma. For those of use labelled indecisive the modern world with its myriad of decisions can be a minefield of stress and regrets. What to buy, where to live, what to study, where to holiday. Persons who tend to over think decisions, often getting analysis paralysis and decision regret. An inability to decide is not just a minor irritation, but it can destroy lives.

So why do some diners decide easily, while others seem to so troubled by the process that you would think they were being asked to decide the fate of . When it comes to decision making people can be  categorized as being either maximisers or satsifizers – and no, I did not make those words up.

Maximization, is a type of decision making which involves seeking the best option through and exhaustive search of alternatives. It is thorough, but in situations where there are too many options or there is no clear best option, we can get indecisive and make no decision at all. Satisficing on the other hand involves evaluating option until you find one which is “good enough”, and then you stop.

Which is the best way to make decision ? Well you would like your brain surgeon to use maximisation in deciding which part of your frontal lobe to burn off- if it takes him  while to decide , so be it – you can wait. However, you would like your hairdresser to be a  satisficer, since you don’t really ant to wait a month for him to decide on what shade Grey Oak of  best highlights your hazel eyes and firm cheekbones.

The problem is that  in certain situations people chose the wrong decision making technique. Obsessive perfectionists tend to chose maximisation, when satisficing is better, such as when they order food, book a hotel or buy a shoes. Confident extraverts, tend to use satisficing , when maximisation might have been better- such as deciding who to have sex with and when to quit your job and travel to South America to join the Marxist rebels.

Which strategy is better ?They key is to chose a decision making strategy that is best suited to the task at hand. Next time you are at a restaurant you can use a simple heuristic- order the risotto-  because it is pretty hard to screw up boiled rice.