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Why do we complicate?

Mark Twain (pictured above) once famously said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead”.

In Twain’s paradox lies a major reason for why we complicate: it’s often easier to complicate than to simplify! Indeed, making things simpler involves extra effort - like editing the first draft of an email - an additional step we’d gladly spare ourselves.

Time is also a big driver of complexity. As a business grows, it creates more products, adds new markets, increases headcount. In that sense, complexity and growth and intimately linked.

It’s the same with relationships. In the early days, everything’s simple. But with time and the accumulation of life events and decisions, relationships become complex. If we break up, it’s often to reconnect with a simpler life, just like a business that’s become too big and restructures.

Our attraction for what’s complicated is so profound, so ingrained, that psychologists have labelled it a cognitive bias – a mental shortcut we use all the time to save time and energy. The complexity bias means we favor impenetrable solutions to avoid the harder task of having to understand.

When brands make claims like ‘contains anti-oxidants’ or ‘ammonia-free’, they are tapping into our complexity bias. Most consumers don’t fully understand these claims but they are complex so it must be good, right? Likewise, who knows how wholegrains or probiotics interact with gut flora in the case of breakfast cereals? Etc.

Social factors play a big role too: there’s often strong pressure to come up with theories that are more complex than need be. Business theory is rife with quack concepts. These can lead to disasters like the subprime debacle.

What's the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’. They are often used interchangeably but in fact they have distinct meanings.

A computer is complicated. It requires a lot of effort and expertise to understand or operate. But with enough knowledge and skill, a complicated problem can often be broken down into simpler parts and solved systematically.

Humans are complex. Characteristic of a complex system is the presence of many interconnected elements that interact in unpredictable ways. In contrast to complicated problems, complex problems often cannot be solved by breaking them down into smaller parts. They require a more holistic approach that considers the interactions between the elements.

Realizing that we have this tendency to complicate is half the battle won.



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