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Complexity Bias, and Looking for Answers in the Wrong Places


I was thinking the other day about complexity bias, which Shane Parrish has described as:

'…our tendency to look at something that is easy to understand, or look at it when we are in a state of confusion, and view it as having many parts that are difficult to understand.'

Counter-intuitively we often prefer to make things seem more complicated than they really are, or to try and tackle complex problems rather than simple ones. It's an interesting bias since, as Shane points out, most cognitive biases originate in order to save mental energy, but complexity bias in a way is also a shortcut since it can result in avoidance of the need to understand.

Anyway, part of the reason I was thinking about it was because sometimes it seems to be all around us. Strategists can complexify problems or solutions in order to demonstrate their intelligence. Marketers can jargonise relatively simple concepts. Engineers can build too much complexity into solutions to try and cover off multiple, poorly understood user needs. Consultants can make challenges or recommendations appear more complicated than they really are in order to justify a higher fee. In general, there is far too small a proportion of time and effort spent simplifying, deprioritising, or stripping away unnecessary complexity and there's real value in an outside perspective being able to do this.

And yet still, it is often so easy to miss or overlook simple solutions or explanations. One of my favourite stories related to this is that of the scientists at the Parkes radio telescope, Australia's most famous observatory, who for 17 years were baffled by strange radio signals that they were reading on their equipment. Astronomers working at the facility first detected the fleeting bursts of radio signals (called 'perytons') in 1998. The perytons were interfering with the astronomer's main mission which was to understand the origin of another set of brief and elusive 'fast radio bursts' which had potentially extragalactic origins. The origin of the new signals seemed to be local but were very intermittent and so were assumed to come from the atmosphere and linked to lightning strikes. Yet further investigation showed that they tended to occur during the day and only when the telescope was pointed in a certain direction. 

After years of searching the astronomers identified the source of the mysterious signals – a microwave oven in the facility’s break room. The astronomers were operating the telescope remotely but there were a small number of maintenance staff on site. When the microwave oven was set to heat something up but then was opened part way through (perhaps to check on the contents) it emitted signals that the telescope was able to pick up when it was pointing in the general direction.

Years of mysterious signals originating from a maintenance worker heating up their lunch. Sometimes the answer is closer than we think.

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