Simple and Complex

This isn’t meant to be a dissertation topic, but the beginning of a string of ideas that need background for full development. So if you have the fortitude, read on . . . Back in the 1950’s it was discovered by a psychologist named George Miller at Bell Labs that the average maximum amount of discrete pieces of information that people could retain in short term memory was about 7; plus or  minus two.  It was because of this research that the phone company chose the 7 digit number for your local phone number.

Because 7 is the average, many people can only remember 5 or 6 bits of information, and of course a rare few can remember up to 9.  There is some speculation that this number is a bit high, or has declined since the original studies.  As a side note; every day I give mental status exams in which I ask people to repeat random strings of numbers to see how many they can remember without error.  Because many of the people I assess are impaired or ill, few ever make it to 7 digits.  Occasionally I have someone who is able to give 9 digits accurately and that’s usually a fun day (psychologists are often nerdy).

There is a correlation between IQ and short term memory ability. In general, the smarter a person is the more individual bits of information he or she is able to keep in their thoughts at the same time.   That means that smarter people are capable of more complex ideas.  The more pieces of information you can keep in your conscious memory at once, the more complex an idea or situation you’ll be able to comprehend.  Smart people seem to understand complex situations easier than less smart people, because less smart people can’t keep all those individual bits of information in their head at once.

When someone is unable to hold more than say three pieces at once, they can become skeptical of the person capable of holding, say 5 things, at once.  The simple person really prefers things to be kept, well, simple.   It is too much work for them to try to keep more than 3 bits in their head at once.  In short, they distrust complex explanations.

The Media tend to aim for just below the Everyman average in communicating news stories.  They aim for the lowest common denominator and that means they over-simplify stories, or just ignore stories that are too complex. If there are more than two or three key components to a story, the complexity will either be ignored or the story won’t be reported.  Many headlines will grab your attention and skew your perception on that story.  If you actually read the story, it's often not so sensational because of mitigating factors.  But how many actually bother to read the whole story in this information over-loaded age?

The result of this is that complex things are seldom presented, or are over-simplified by the Media, and we are trained out of being able to think or grasp complex ideas.  Some stories simply cannot be told with only two variables. The over-simplification results in gross inaccuracy.  Imagine only having two colors to paint with, two letters to type with, two words to talk with etc, and you will quickly grasp how much error is introduced with over-simplification.

Politicians exploit this over-simplification.  Two current issues that are extremely complex;  global warming, and health care reform, serve as examples.  The earth is getting hotter (it is assumed, but again the data are very complex) and so we need to restrict human behavior so as to cool it down.  A complex problem is given an over-simplified solution that may do more harm than good (increasing poverty for example).  The health care system, we are told, is failing or is in crisis (an over-simplified statement).  So It needs fixing and the government is the one that needs to fix it (over-simplified solution).  The reality is that our health care system is extremely complex, only parts of it are failing, and that not every “failure”is because of the system itself. Some parts work very well, and most parts work well for most people. Individual's need to bear responsibility for their own health and self-care and that is not factored into the "crisis" equation.  There are problems: greed, unethical companies, injustices, rising costs, large law suits.  But these things are complex, and complex problems are not generally solved by simple solutions.  But because the average person can now only hold two ideas in mind at once it is easy for the politicians leverage this simplicity for their own agendas. Both sides do this by the way.

Comedians exploit over-simplification in a big way.  People are complex, but if comedian’s can be successful at dehumanizing celebrities to one or two key foibles, they can keep a run of jokes going for years, and in the process skew public perceptions.  Consider:  Clinton is always unfaithful (or over-eating).  Bush two (W.) is stupid, Nixon lies, Chaney shoots people.  Ford is clumsy, Carter grows peanuts.  Hillary Clinton is shrewish, McCain is old and over-the-hill, etc.

The American Psyche typically only sees two possible choices or outcomes in any given situation, precisely because we have been trained to over-simply things so as to not stretch our brains too much.  This comes up in the counseling room when people are trying to solve interpersonal problems and they can only see two possible ways of behaving:  The way they’ve always behaved, which is not generally working, and an alternate extreme that is so distasteful or anxiety provoking that it is never tried.  Because we have been trained to over simplify, to only think of two or three variables instead of seven, we have very limited options in solving our problems.

The more we habitually think in twos, the less able we are to recognize our own limitations or errors.  A person who is used to holding five to seven things in their head at a time, that only sees two possible choices, will immediately begin to cast about for more options.  A person who is used to holding only two things at a time will stop looking for options once two ideas occur to him.  Creative problem solving never occurs to the lazy thinker; neither does self-correction, error checking, or paradigm shifts.  A lazy thinker will not bother to look for errors when they see only two choices and one is obviously better than the other.  A complex thinker will check for errors, because the possibility of error is one of the seven things they are holding constant in their heads, and even if one option seems better, they will wonder if there is an option that has not yet occurred to them.

This phenomenon of over-simplification is called black and white thinking.  It happens in people’s approach to understanding the Bible all the time. People confuse the concept of moral absolutes, with simplistic understanding of reading the Bible text.  So, for example, holding two ideas constant:  The Bible is always right (belief in absolutes), and the verse that says “Women should pray with their heads covered” a Black and White thinker will assert that every woman must wear a hat or shawl to church or risk sinning.  There is no room for complex reasoning that takes into account five or six variables (context) when reading a passage in order to arrive at the accurate and trustworthy meaning of the scripture.  When a complex thinker tries to reason with the simple thinker, the later distrusts the former as not believing in the literal interpretation of scripture, and the simple thinker is unable to distinguish errant interpretation from moral relativism. There’s no room for the idea, “maybe my understanding is what is in error.”

So:  work at being able to identify complexity.  Don’t be lazy, but practice holding several thoughts in your head at once.  Work at being able to identify when something truly is simple (there are simple things out there) and when it’s complex.  Conversely don't over-complicate the truly simple.   Simple problems generally require simple solutions, and complex problems generally require complex solutions.  Resist simplistic reductionism:  complex things being explained by one or two causes.  Reductionistic thinking (over-simplification) almost always leads to errors, and sometimes those errors cause real harm in people’s lives.