Decision-making: Are You An Ant Or A Grasshopper?

One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.

“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “Haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”

“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”

The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.

“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

In this famous fable of Aesop, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The fun-loving grasshopper has a blast all summer, singing and playing fiddle, while the dutiful ants toils away preparing for the winter. If you are one of those who feels the ants’ gratification-delaying strategy is not the best approach in life, here’s news for you. Findings in a publication by University of Connecticut psychology researcher Susan Zhu and colleagues add to a growing body of evidence that, although it may seem less appealing, the ants’ strategy should not be viewed in a negative light. “This decision strategy can be harder or more time-consuming in the moment, but it appears to have the best outcome in the long run, even if it isn’t fun,” says Zhu.

The researchers call the ant a ‘Maximiser’. A maximiser is someone who makes decisions that they expect will impact themselves and others most favourably. They seek to maximise the positive and make the best choices imaginable. Previous research has suggested the ant may consider so many variables that the tendency to maximise benefit may lead to difficulty in making decisions. This will mean the maximisers are less happy overall, have higher stress levels, and possibly regret decisions they made. But Zhu’s research suggests maximising has beneficial consequences.

“Maximisers are forward-thinking, conscientious, optimistic, and satisfied,” she says. “Though a lot of work and thought go into those decisions, maximising has beneficial outcomes.”

The grasshopper, on the other hand, is more of what researchers refer to as a ‘Satisficer’, someone who opts for instant gratification and who will be happy with things being ‘good enough’. “A satisficer will make a decision, feel good about making it, and move on,” says Zhu.

Most people, say the researchers, exhibit both qualities and hence fall towards the middle of the spectrum. In their study, the researchers asked hundreds of participants questions regarding financial decisions, namely savings habits and tendencies. They rated various statements, such as “I never settle for second best,” on a five-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The questionnaire was designed to gauge whether participants tended to maximise their decisions, how they felt their decisions would impact the future, and how they viewed smaller immediate rewards or larger future rewards.

The survey, in order to measure tendencies, also looked at how participants expected their decisions to affect the future. They were asked to rate statements like, “I consider how things might be in the future and try to influence those things with my day to day behaviour,” and “I often think about saving money for the future,” and to provide information about lifetime savings amounts and current income.

Once data was gathered, researchers observed trends and found that the maximisers had a positive relationship with their future-oriented thinking, better money-saving habits, and concern for the future of others.

There’s a takeaway from this. Says Zhu, “Maximising can be a good thing. Previous research looked at decision-making difficulty and other negative outcomes, and that added a negative connotation to maximising tendencies. We’re trying to frame it in light of the high standards and the beneficial outcomes, to help reshape the view of maximising.”

However, the ideal choice, no matter where you fall on the spectrum, is to take the best of both the ant and the grasshopper: Plan for the future, but also have some fun now.

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