Complexity Bias: Why We Prefer Complicated to Simple


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. That’s usually the option with the most assumptions and regressions. 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.

To understand complexity bias, we need first to establish the meaning of three key terms associated with it: complexity, simplicity, and chaos.

Complexity, like pornography, is hard to define when we’re put on the spot, although most of us recognize it when we see it. The Cambridge Dictionary defines complexity as “the state of having many parts and being difficult to understand or find an answer to.” The definition of simplicity is the inverse: “something [that] is easy to understand or do.” Chaos is defined as “a state of total confusion with no order.”

Complex systems contain individual parts that combine to form a collective that often can’t be predicted from its components. Consider humans. We are complex systems. We’re made of about 100 trillion cells and yet we are so much more than the aggregation of our cells. You’d never predict what we’re like or who we are from looking at our cells.

Complexity bias is our tendency to look at something that is easy to understand, or look at it when we are in a state of confusion, and view it as having many parts that are difficult to understand.

We often find it easier to face a complex problem than a simple one.

A person who feels tired all the time might insist that their doctor check their iron levels while ignoring the fact that they are unambiguously sleep deprived. Someone experiencing financial difficulties may stress over the technicalities of their telephone bill while ignoring the large sums of money they spend on cocktails.

Marketers make frequent use of complexity bias.

They do this by incorporating confusing language or insignificant details into product packaging or sales copy. Most people who buy “ammonia-free” hair dye, or a face cream which “contains peptides,” don’t fully understand the claims. Terms like these often mean very little, but we see them and imagine that they signify a product that’s superior to alternatives.

How many of you know what probiotics really are and how they interact with gut flora?

Meanwhile, we may also see complexity where only chaos exists. This tendency manifests in many forms, such as conspiracy theories, superstition, folklore, and logical fallacies. The distinction between complexity and chaos is not a semantic one. When we imagine that something chaotic is in fact complex, we are seeing it as having an order and more predictability than is warranted. In fact, there is no real order, and prediction is incredibly difficult at best.

Complexity bias is interesting because the majority of cognitive biases occur in order to save mental energy. For example, confirmation bias enables us to avoid the effort associated with updating our beliefs. We stick to our existing opinions and ignore information that contradicts them. Availability bias is a means of avoiding the effort of considering everything we know about a topic. It may seem like the opposite is true, but complexity bias is, in fact, another cognitive shortcut. By opting for impenetrable solutions, we sidestep the need to understand. Of the fight-or-flight responses, complexity bias is the flight response. It is a means of turning away from a problem or concept and labeling it as too confusing. If you think something is harder than it is, you surrender your responsibility to understand it.

“Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

Faced with too much information on a particular topic or task, we see it as more complex than it is. Often, understanding the fundamentals will get us most of the way there. Software developers often find that 90% of the code for a project takes about half the allocated time. The remaining 10% takes the other half. Writing — and any other sort of creative work — is much the same. When we succumb to complexity bias, we are focusing too hard on the tricky 10% and ignoring the easy 90%.

Research has revealed our inherent bias towards complexity.

In a 1989 paper entitled “Sensible reasoning in two tasks: Rule discovery and hypothesis evaluation,” Hilary F. Farris and Russell Revlin evaluated the topic. In one study, participants were asked to establish an arithmetic rule. They received a set of three numbers (such as 2, 4, 6) and tried to generate a hypothesis by asking the experimenter if other number sequences conformed to the rule. Farris and Revlin wrote, “This task is analogous to one faced by scientists, with the seed triple functioning as an initiating observation, and the act of generating the triple is equivalent to performing an experiment.”

The actual rule was simple: list any three ascending numbers.

The participants could have said anything from “1, 2, 3” to “3, 7, 99” and been correct. It should have been easy for the participants to guess this, but most of them didn’t. Instead, they came up with complex rules for the sequences. (Also see Falsification of Your Best Loved Ideas.)

A paper by Helena Matute looked at how intermittent reinforcement leads people to see complexity in chaos. Three groups of participants were placed in rooms and told that a loud noise would play from time to time. The volume, length, and pattern of the sound were identical for each group. Group 1 (Control) was told to sit and listen to the noises. Group 2 (Escape) was told that there was a specific action they could take to stop the noises. Group 3 (Yoked) was told the same as Group 2, but in their case, there was actually nothing they could do.

Matute wrote:

Yoked participants received the same pattern and duration of tones that had been produced by their counterparts in the Escape group. The amount of noise received by Yoked and Control subjects depends only on the ability of the Escape subjects to terminate the tones. The critical factor is that Yoked subjects do not have control over reinforcement (noise termination) whereas Escape subjects do, and Control subjects are presumably not affected by this variable.

The result? Not one member of the Yoked group realized that they had no control over the sounds. Many members came to repeat particular patterns of “superstitious” behavior. Indeed, the Yoked and Escape groups had very similar perceptions of task controllability. Faced with randomness, the participants saw complexity.

Does that mean the participants were stupid? Not at all. We all exhibit the same superstitious behavior when we believe we can influence chaotic or simple systems.

Funnily enough, animal studies have revealed much the same. In particular, consider B.F. Skinner’s well-known research on the effects of random rewards on pigeons. Skinner placed hungry pigeons in cages equipped with a random-food-delivery mechanism. Over time, the pigeons came to believe that their behavior affected the food delivery. Skinner described this as a form of superstition. One bird spun in counterclockwise circles. Another butted its head against a corner of the cage. Other birds swung or bobbed their heads in specific ways. Although there is some debate as to whether “superstition” is an appropriate term to apply to birds, Skinner’s research shed light on the human tendency to see things as being more complex than they actually are.

Skinner wrote (in “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38):

The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

The world around us is a chaotic, entropic place. But it is rare for us to see it that way.

In Living with Complexity, Donald A. Norman offers a perspective on why we need complexity:

We seek rich, satisfying lives, and richness goes along with complexity. Our favorite songs, stories, games, and books are rich, satisfying, and complex. We need complexity even while we crave simplicity… Some complexity is desirable. When things are too simple, they are also viewed as dull and uneventful. Psychologists have demonstrated that people prefer a middle level of complexity: too simple and we are bored, too complex and we are confused. Moreover, the ideal level of complexity is a moving target, because the more expert we become at any subject, the more complexity we prefer. This holds true whether the subject is music or art, detective stories or historical novels, hobbies or movies.

As an example, Norman asks readers to contemplate the complexity we attach to tea and coffee. Most people in most cultures drink tea or coffee each day. Both are simple beverages, made from water and coffee beans or tea leaves. Yet we choose to attach complex rituals to them. Even those of us who would not consider ourselves to be connoisseurs have preferences. Offer to make coffee for a room full of people, and we can be sure that each person will want it made in a different way.

Coffee and tea start off as simple beans or leaves, which must be dried or roasted, ground and infused with water to produce the end result. In principle, it should…


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