Ants are simple creatures. They live by simple rules: if you see a scrap of food, pick it up; if you see a pile of food, drop the food you are carrying. Out of such simple behaviour, an ant colony emerges.
We humans are like the ants. For all our sophistication, we react to the world in simple ways. Our world is complex, but our ability to cope with it is limited. We seek simple solutions that hide or ignore the complexity.
The result is that our actions often have unintended side-effects. These produce unwelcome trends, accidents and disasters.
Our senses are constantly bombarded with far more data than our brains can process. Our sensory systems filter it, extracting features, such as movement, that we need to make sense of our surroundings.
The limits of short-term memory further increase the need to simplify. The psychologist George Miller found that short-term memory can process only a few chunks of information at a time (the so-called “seven-plus-or-minus two” rule).
Given a string of random letters, you might recall just seven at a time, but if the letters form identifiable chunks, such as words or phrases, then you can remember longer strings of text.
Making life simple
Our brains cope with complexity by identifying important features and filtering out unnecessary detail. On seeing that the space you enter has four walls, a floor and a ceiling, you know you have entered a room and can usually ignore the details. This is an example of what the French psychologist Jean Piaget termed a “schema”, a mental recipe we learn for responding to common situations.
As individuals, we deal with complexity in our lives by removing or hiding it. Our mental schemas are one way of doing that. Habits are another.
We also simplify complex decision-making by using received wisdom. This includes following simple rules of thumb (“a stitch in time”), following the advice of people we respect or trust, and conforming to the beliefs and attitudes of whatever group we belong to.
Society has many ways of managing complexity. Commonly seen is the “divide and rule” approach to management, which leads to hierarchical division of large organisations.
Another is to use constraints, such as laws, road rules and commercial standards, all of which limit the potential for harmful interactions to occur. The design of a home simplifies living space by dividing it into separate rooms for sleeping, eating and other activities.
Why simple doesn’t always work
Simplicity is a virtue, so long as the world around us behaves in the way we expect. However, our world is complex, even more so than any way we represent it, either in our mental models, or even in scientific models.
Influences omitted from consideration can cause a model to fail, especially when conditions change. A simple example is failing to put personal items – say, your keys – in their usual place.
Your “model” of where the keys should be fails and you face a long hunt to find them. Changed conditions also underlie most accidents. The history of aviation shows that despite its increasing safety, unexpected conditions continue to surface and lead to disaster.
New technologies are usually introduced to simplify our lives, but inevitably they have unexpected side effects on society. For instance, the introduction of labour-saving devices into the home set off cascades of social changes, such as the decline of the nuclear family.
It makes life simpler to rely on others to provide solutions to complex problems. We assume that mentors, experts or political leaders have answers to society’s problems.
However, their models are just as susceptible as anyone’s. A study by Philip Tetlock showed that experts who base predictions on sweeping, general ideas, such as political ideologies, are usually the best known, most influential and most widely trusted; they are also the ones who are most often wrong.
Our inability to fathom complexity leads to a belief that any worthwhile solution to a situation must be simple. This attitude perhaps explains the widespread mistrust of science today: it has become too complex and technical for the public to understand. So people often ignore or reject its messages, especially when its findings are unpalatable.
Any change introduces complexity into people’s lives. Rather than face issues that are complex, some people retreat into denial, preferring to believe in a simpler future in which there is no change and their lives can go on as they always have.
The world today is undergoing rapid change. Economic growth, environmental threats and the explosion of new technologies are enormously complex and threaten social upheaval. Brexit, the US election result, and climate change denial all appear to have roots in the desire for simplicity.
In an era of post-truth and pseudoscience, what can you do? More than ever, avoid following simple slogans uncritically. Avoid dismissing uncomfortable facts out of hand (confirmation bias).
Above all, remember that complexity arises from the richness of interconnections between things. To ignore the wider context, to fail to consider the side effects of actions and ideas, is to do so at our peril.
About The Author
David Green, Professor of Information Technology, Monash University
- Ecco Press
Brand: Ecco Press
“A cracking read, combining storytelling of the highest order with a trove of information. . . . What’s remarkable is that it all fits together.”—Wall Street Journal
“Successful science writing tells a complete story of the ‘how’—the methodical marvel building up to the ‘why’—and Randall does just that.”—New York Times Book Review
“[Randall] is a lucid explainer, street-wise and informal. Without jargon or mathematics, she steers us through centuries of sometimes tortuous astronomical history.”—The Guardian
In Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, Professor Lisa Randall, one of today’s most influential theoretical physicists, takes readers on an intellectual adventure through the history of the cosmos, showing how events in the farthest reaches of the Universe created the conditions for life—and death—on our planet.
Sixty-six million years ago, an object the size of a city crashed into Earth, killing off the dinosaurs, along with three-quarters of the planet’s species. Challenging the usual assumptions about the simple makeup of the unseen material that constitutes 85% of the matter in the Universe, Randall explains how a disk of dark matter in the Milky Way plane might have triggered the cataclysm.
But Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs does more than present a radical idea. With clarity and wit, it explains the nature of the Universe, dark matter, the Milky Way galaxy, comets, asteroids, and impacts. This breathtaking synthesis, illuminated by pop culture references and social and political viewpoints, reveals the deep relationships among the small and the large, the visible and the hidden, as well as the astonishing beauty of the connections that surround us. It’s impossible to read this book and look at either the Earth or the sky again in the same way.
- Raffaella Cosco
- Karen Davis
Studio: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Label: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Manufacturer: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Year: 2014 (2015 Newly Revised Edition) Cover Drawings: Raffaella Cosco Title Design: Michael Lanfield Foreword: Karen Davis, PhD Publisher: We Are Interconnected Films
The book presents three Japanese psychotherapeutic approaches, Morita, Naikan, and Dohsa-hou, in the chronological order of their development, giving a thorough account of both their underlying concepts and practical applications. In addition to describing their idiosyncrasies, a major focus of the book is also to elucidate as to how the deeply imprinted cultural specificities of these approaches, emanating from their common cultural ground, converge to two focal points―silence and body-mind interconnectedness―that vest the approaches with their therapeutic power. In so doing, the book gives an insight into the intrinsic dynamics of the methods and emphasizes on their potential for universal applicability notwithstanding their indisputable cultural peculiarities. This self-contained and well-structured book fills the gap in the yet scarce English-language literature on Japanese psychotherapies.