Does education make us complexity snobs – or are we born that way?

 Aspiring authors need to understand that the path of true research does not always have a smooth surface. 

Indeed I’m now particularly wary of that well worn and clichéd adjective: seminal (as in seminal work, seminal article etc). The dictionary tells us that the word means “highly influential in an original way; constituting or providing a basis for further development”. I’m convinced it sometimes means “pertaining to semen – not much use unless it’s fertilised”.

Here’s what I mean. My friend Serge Nicholls drew my attention to a really interesting piece by Oliver Burkeman on the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/may/21/decision-quicksand-burkeman

His piece was about our tendency to assume that the more complex a problem is, the more important it must be. And therefore that hard decisions are more important than easy ones.  

Oliver was writing about a research paper written by Aner Sela and Johan Berger. So I looked up the original paper on the internet. Was it impenetrable, or was it really impenetrable! Then I realised that Oliver had picked up not the original paper, but a highly readable summary of it in Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating neuroscience blog at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex/

Lehrer wrote the excellent The Decisive Moment, and to judge from that and his blog, he has the priceless quality of simplifying the complex – rather than the opposite ‘skill’. 

This is a rambling way of telling you that I’m with the Sela and Berger thesis all the way. Even if I needed Lehrer and Burkeman to explain it.

I’m not questioning the findings. All of us have observed friends, colleagues, partners, clients, agencies, those famous “experts”, and even ourselves adding complexity rather than taking it away. What intrigues me is why we are ‘complexity snobs’, and indeed (as other researchers have discovered) why we seem deliberately to want to complicate a problem, even if someone can show how simple it really is.

Possible explanations: 

  • Does it go back to our education where the tasks and exams we were set got harder as we got older?
  • Is it plumbed into us from birth?
  • Is it a jobsworth thing? A yearning for some kind of status badge?
  • Is it basically mercenary? (The more difficult the problem, the more I can earn (in salary or fee) by solving it.). Good old behavioural economics again!

 What do YOU think?