Fallacy of Oversimplification

Humans are prone to many biases.  It’s one avenue of psychology that I find valuable because it helps you to question your own decisions to logically arrive at demonstrably better ones.

People are driven to seek simplification to a fault.  It’s a bias that causes us to make bad decisions.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” – Albert Einstein

The problem is that we constantly try to oversimplify complex systems in order to comprehend them.  Diet and nutrition is one subject that people love to oversimplify.  Every diet is an attempt to simplify the human digestive system into a couple of guidelines.  However, there is not a single expert on the planet that understands all the intricacies of how we digest food.  It is far too complex of a system for the human brain to account for all the interacting factors.

So we pick a diet to ascribe to. Vegetarianism, Food Pyramid, Paleo, Calorie reduced, or Raw food and then make dietary decisions based on this proxy interpretation of the real thing.  I’ve seen many vegetarians who believe red meat is unhealthy but are overweight and happily dive into a bag of potato chips.  Many people have quoted the ‘calories in vs. calories out’ dogma to me that simplifies a human to a bomb calorimeter and which convinces people to eat aspartame.

Many start-up companies also claim to be the ‘simpler’ product in a market place. Almost inevitably they gradually understand the problem and add enough features to no longer be simple.  We want things to be simpler than they should be in many cases. Often the complexity is there for a reason which we don’t yet understand.  Entrepreneurs should be aware that if they have an idea which is “X but simpler” then it’s a signal that maybe it’s a trap of lack of knowledge.

There’s a story about stock traders that stuck with me. One of the big banks decided to split test the performance of the smartest people they could find compared to average people.  The smart people were used to being right all their life, they prudently did a lot of research about stocks and determined which way a stock price would go. When the stock price did the opposite they would hold onto their beliefs that it was just some short term volatility and hold waiting for their research to bear correct. Often they would ride that stock all the way down – sure that they were right.  Average intelligence traders were more willing to concede that they made a bad trade, and cut their losses before losing everything.  It is an oversimplification to predict how the supply/demand of thousands of traders will impact a stock price based on one person’s analysis.  The fallacy of sticking to your oversimplification in the face of evidence to the contrary is a easy way to lose all your money.

We simplify people by their traits and then proceed to make assumptions and extrapolate on them.  We say “He’s a hick” or “she’s a CEO” and then make decisions about how we interact with that person.  This is a necessity or else we will forever be stuck with a lack of confidence, but it’s important to be cognizant that the decisions we do make are based on an incomplete understanding. Instead of thinking if “Kate”, the person, would like to talk about cars we can make some assumptions – she drives a BMW so she’ll probably complain about all the slow drivers on the roads. 😉

I think it’s perfectly ok to surrender to ‘I don’t know’. Some things are just too complex.  One person cannot simulate what goes on in another person’s brain let alone the collection of everyone.  Some complex systems cannot be simplified to a level that the human brain is capable of understanding. That’s ok to acknowledge.

The fallacy of oversimplification is that we make decisions on simplified understanding of reality and rarely come back to second guess our understanding even in the face of evidence to the contrary. When things don’t happen as you predict it can be a signal that there are important factors being discounted from your beliefs. Perhaps we need a richer understanding.  There are many complex systems in the world which humans are simply incapable of comprehending for which an oversimplification is necessary, but in those situations we should remain conscious that we operate without all the facts and are prone to make mistakes of judgement.