When I was growing up, I loved to read. I still do! Give me a book, a blanket, and a fireplace on a rainy day and I am a happy human.
One of my favorite series when I was a kid was the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were super popular in the 1980s and 90s. Each story was written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determined the main character’s actions and the outcome of the plot.
The protagonist had a specific role based on the different adventures. Sometimes they were a private investigator, or an underwater explorer, or even a secret spy.
After a section, you’d have a decision to make based on the plot so far. Based on what action you chose, you’d be directed to a page to see what happened next. Sometimes you met with an untimely end and other times you got surprise happy outcomes.
But a funny thing happens to us overthinking protagonists when we’re faced with different choices. We often lean toward choosing the harder option.
For the Bottom Line on Top of this episode, I’ll borrow a quote from ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius which says: Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
Part of this behavioral bias comes from cognitive psychology and part comes from modern marketing. Starting with the brain, the concept of the Complexity Bias is that we have a tendency to prefer the complicated over the simple.
To put it plainly: If it’s too simple, we don’t always trust it. If something seems extra complicated, we give credence to why we don’t fully understand it or why we feel exhausted by the act of making decisions.
And we are also led to believe this Complexity Bias from a marketing perspective as well. Companies and brands pay a lot of money to tap into this bias so we will trust them as “experts” over trusting ourselves. The more complicated it sounds, the more we’re likely to turn to others – those experts – to have done the research for us so we don’t have to.
I find myself falling for this when trying to figure out the difference between eggs in the supermarket. Should I get cage free or free range? What about added omega? What’s the difference between brown v. white and what’s the difference between grade A and grade AA? So many questions.
Complexity lends an aura of authority that we’re more willing to trust vs. investing our own time and energy into researching and possibly getting confused or, let’s face it, being wrong. It’s easier to say: I didn’t know but it sounded like they did!
It’s not that we don’t have the intellectual capacity to figure most things out. It’s more about looking for shortcuts to deal with the steady hum happening in our brains. As we juggle so many different pieces of information, we often turn to cognitive shortcuts to try and save precious mental energy.
And, just to make this slightly more uncomfortable, it’s also a way that we tend to avoid responsibility. It’s easier to snuggle into our confirmation bias + that complexity bias than to put in the effort to update our beliefs about a situation or an event. Think about that the next time you’re watching the news, especially when with people who think differently than you do.
By sticking to our existing opinions, we can ignore information that contradicts our happy shortcuts. This saves time because we can sidestep the need to understand the new, potentially more complex issues and rely on soundbites and shortcuts to get us back on the page to the adventure we chose.
We forget sometimes that we actually have control over what happens next in our own story. Certainly not in the large surprises of life but we definitely do in the everyday decisions.
So how can we overcome complexity bias? One principle is known as Occam’s razor (that’s O-c-c-a-m). This mental model suggests that the simplest solution or explanation is usually the correct one. As this relates to juggling our day, the premise can be framed this way: Action started is better than options researched.
Episode 24 explained how indecision is a decision in most cases. And the antidote to that is taking small, simple steps to kickstart momentum.
Back to Occam’s razor, when you find yourself faced with two options, start with the simpler one as a way to get started taking action. You can always adjust course once you’re going or when you get new information. But starting with a simple step can carry you further than marinating in complexity.
We get to write our own adventure story. We can make the story as complex or as simple as we want. And while we may not be in control of every event, we certainly have input on what we do next. And what step to take first in the next Next.
So in our quest to do fewer things better, sometimes we can do the simpler things occasionally.
And as you set off on the journey that you chose, be sure to take good care along the way.