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Complexity Bias: Why We Overcomplicate Life

Mar 31, 2024

Read time: 4 minutes

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. Why do we do it?”

Most people overcomplicate simple situations because they believe that the solution requires it.

I can sympathize with those who do this because I have also done it.

In my early 20s, I drove a black Pontiac Grand Prix. I loved that car, but it had its fair share of problems—overheating was one of them.

I remember calling my dad, worried that this problem required a complicated (and expensive) solution. However, I was very wrong.

Fixing this issue required a $7 thermostat from Autozone, tools I already had, and about 10 minutes of our time.

My dad taught me a valuable lesson that day: “Sometimes the solution is simpler than we think.” — here we are a decade later, and these words still resonate with me.

There are many situations we face in life where the solution is different from what we expected it to be.

We are programmed to desire novelty, the “perfect solution,” and complexity.

So, when we are presented with solutions that don’t seem to check those boxes, we believe something is missing.

But why is that?

What drives us to overlook relatively simple solutions to seemingly complex problems in life, work, or relationships?

So today, I want to explore a fascinating phenomenon and help you adopt a different perspective—similar to the shift I experienced under the hood of my Pontiac Grand Prix nearly 10 years ago.

Introducing: The Complexity Bias

The tendency to prefer the complicated over the simple is called Complexity Bias.

Here’s a slightly more formal definition:

“Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one—usually the option with the most assumptions. As a result, when we need to solve a problem, we may ignore simple solutions—thinking ‘that will never work’—and instead favor complex ones.”

After reading this definition, do you see bits of yourself? Is there any part of your behavior that favors complex solutions over simple ones?

If so, you’re not alone. We all do it.

We all attempt to inject complexity into anything we can because our complexity bias subconsciously leads us to believe that the solution should require more knowledge or effort.

However, that’s not always true.

How Can We Overcome Complexity Bias?

The most effective tool we have for overcoming complexity bias resembles the lesson I learned all those years ago under the hood of my car.

“The simplest solution or explanation is usually the correct one.”

When we lack empirical evidence to disprove a proposed explanation, we should avoid making assumptions or adding unnecessary complexity.

It’s important to look for foundational truths and then find the right amount of complexity in the solutions we seek.

It’s a great principle to remember, but it’s easier said than done.

So, here’s how to put this into practice in our daily lives.

Remember the lesson I learned from my car overheating? This is where you apply it — when facing an issue and seeking a solution.

Don’t immediately accept the belief that the solution must be complex. Instead, hit pause and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are the steps I’m taking essential?
  • What are the steps or parts of the process that I can eliminate?
  • Am I overcomplicating things unjustifiably?
  • Have I explored all my options? Even those that appear to be “too simple.”

Sounds simple, huh? It is. It’s supposed to be.

Now, I’m not advocating that complexity can always be avoided. Sometimes, it can’t. It may even be necessary for innovation and progress, depending on what we’re discussing.

However, in most everyday situations, the regular ups and downs that you and I face in life — simple is usually better.

Here are a few suggestions to consider:

  • Does it have to be a meeting? Or can that be an email?
  • Does the scope of that project genuinely require a large group, or will a few of the right people be able to get the job done?
  • Why does your workout routine consist of 10+ different variations of one exercise? Would fewer, more intentional lifts be enough to keep you strong, fit, and healthy? (Most of us aren’t bodybuilding or signing up for physique shows)
  • How is that complicated routine helping you to live a more calm lifestyle?
  • If you’re a creator, does your process of setting up and creating consist of a lot of friction? Is it possible to simplify and produce the same or better final product?
  • What is it with trying to please everyone? If you prioritize your core values, would that be enough?
  • Am I overthinking and overcomplicating the issues with my car? Is the solution simpler than I thought?

These are just a few scenarios in which complexity bias might sway you. Of course, depending on your situation, you might need a more complex solution.

I’ll leave that for you to judge.

But unless we ask ourselves questions like those I proposed above, we might never know what the essential bits are and which are the unnecessary frills.

Keep life simple, my friend.

That’s it for this week. I’ll see you next Sunday.

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