Co-Satisficing: Squeaky wheels and vicious cycles

Co-Satisficing: Squeaky wheels and vicious cycles

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“Darling, you’re absolutely right. I haven’t been paying you much attention, but from now on things are going to be different.”.

“On” is the iffy word here. We’re generally not wise enough that a word to the wise, wises us up forever more

As long as the pressure is high, we respond. When the pressure subsides we return to the way we were. We “satisfice,” meaning we attend to pressing problems until they are no longer pressing and then shift our attention elsewhere.

The term “satisficing” was coined by Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon for the way we naturally settle for the sufficiently satisfactory solution, rather than working unceasingly toward the perfect solution. We can’t afford to think about everything, so we grease the squeakiest wheel until it stops squeaking, then we go on to the next squeakiest wheel. Consciousness is a pinhole in a flood—so little conscious attention, so many things we could attend to—that we simply have to prioritize this way.

And when two people are satisficing with each other they often end up in cycles of reciprocating squeakiness. Pat calls attention to the problem, which causes Jan to focus on it, which satisfies Pat, which frees Jan to shift focus off it, which causes the problem to grow again, which causes Pat to call attention to it, which causes Jan to focus on it. . . .

It’s like that comedy routine. Every time the boss turns to look, the employee stops goofing off. Every time the boss looks away, the employee goofs off again.

Co-satisficing is infectious. Pretty soon Pat and Jan have a second cycle going about the way Pat nags. And in the meantime, Pat complains to Chris about the way Jan doesn’t take care of business. Chris gets agitated thinking about the way Jan takes advantage of Pat, and says that Pat should make a stink. The next week, Chris asks about that serious problem with Jan and Pat says “What problem? Jan is always very responsive,” which calms Chris down until the next week when Pat is up in arms again about Jan’s unresponsiveness.

To name it is to tame it: co-satisficing. Recognizing its cycles helps us dampen them.