This week the US is faced with yet another policy shift – increasing deportations. Whenever I ask people who are in favor of this policy why they support it, they say it will make our country safer and get rid of illegal immigrants who take Americans jobs. Why would this be bad?

Here’s the thing – that answer is just too simple. If you have a simple answer to  a complex problem, you’re not thinking. But, why do we do this? Why do we gravitate toward an easy explanation?

Why It’s Not So Simple

First, let’s talk about how things are never simple. Keeping with the immigration example for a moment, not only is it a complex issue, when looked at more globally it may not even accomplish the simple goals people claim it will. Here is just one aspect of the not so simple consequences people who like simple answers are NOT thinking about.

Expanding immigration beyond previous parameters to include a wider swath of potential illegal immigrants (according to the current mandates/policy direction) means relying heavily on local law enforcement.

  • Consequence: It will pull local law enforcement away from other duties, such as protecting their areas.
  • Consequence: It will likely lead to increased racial profiling.
  • Consequence: It will use local money for immigrant policing, which is a federal responsibility, not a local responsibility.
  • Consequence: It encourages fear and mistrust with local law enforcement.
  • Consequence (this is the one that bothers me the most): It increases the likelihood people will not come forward as witnesses, as domestic abuse victims, or to report child abuse.
    • For those of you worried about safety of the country, did you consider terrorism? Increasing distrust between immigrant communities in general and law enforcement means making people afraid to come forward. This also means less reporting on suspicious activities, like potential terrorist threats, by the very communities that may be the most likely to notice.

But Why Don’t People Want to Think About These Consequences?thing explaner.jpg

In order to understand this, I, of course, went into research mode, one of my favorite things to do. There aren’t a ton of studies specifically on the topic of  – why do we like things simple – that I could find. I did find it interesting that when searching for books, articles and studies on “simplicity vs complexity,” the majority of the search returns had a theme like this one – Thing Explainer, Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

Is this a reflection of our overwhelming need to simplify or are all books/articles causing us to think simply?

While there wasn’t an abundance of data or explanations that I could find on our need for simplicity, I did come across some interesting information that shed a little more light and none of it seemed simple.

A Lesson from Consumerism

This need for simplicity isn’t just specific to social or government issues. It permeates every aspect of our lives, including our purchases. A study by researchers at Harvard looked at what makes people follow through on a purchase or buy something more than once. They termed it “stickiness.” Here’s what they found:

The single biggest driver of stickiness, by far, was “decision simplicity”—the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product and confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options. What consumers want from marketers is, simply, simplicity.

Next time you go buy something, ask yourself, are you buying it because it’s the right thing for you to purchase or because it’s simple?

Our love of simplicity also seems to have deep roots.

We Have a History of Over Simplifying

The call for simplicity is everywhere. It’s even in our literature and entertainment. Let’s take Occam’s Razor as an example. If you read a lot of detective novels or watch detective shows, you’ve probably heard it. It’s a concept based on a 14th century English Franciscan friar named William of Ockahm (it can be spelled both ways apparently). It essentially states the simplest explanation is usually the best one. I’m pretty sure Sherlock Holmes has referred to this a time or two. (I know my beloved Veronica Mars did!)

Beyond this, some of the greatest minds in history and literature have touted the benefits of simplicity. Henry David Thoreau once said,

“Our life is frittered away by detail. …Simply, simplify.”

In some ways, yes, our lives might be much better if we simplified – buy fewer things, focus on what’s important, arrange our lives in a way that creates calm. But is that simplicity or prioritization? And, is simple always better, especially when dealing with something complex?

sheldon 2.jpgHow About a Lesson in Physics

Everyone loves Newtonian physics because it’s simple. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Bodies in motion stay in motion. These are simple concepts anyone can understand. But, Sheldon Cooper would tell you that simple physics doesn’t explain everything and more complex theories had to evolve to fully understand and explain the universe. Essentially, to try to make it simple (see even I do it!) – things are complicated and a simple explanation just isn’t enough.

So if things are complicated, why do we force them into narrow, simple ideas?

holism 3.pngPsychological Debates of Simplicity vs Complexity

I tried to find the answer in psychology, unfortunately it seemed to just make it more complicated. Even within psychology community, some view simplicity as beneficial and others do not. There is an entire psychological debate on this called reductionism vs. holism. Reductionism is the belief that “the simple is the source of the complex.” For example, a phenomenon like human behavior needs to be reduced to broken down to its most basic elements to be understood. Conversely, holism suggests there are different levels of explanation and that at each level there are emergent properties that cannot be reduced. I don’t know which is right. But, trying to understand either isn’t simple, in fact it’s rather complex. I probably did neither idea service trying to break it down so simply in my single paragraph.

People Crave Simplicity

There have been numerous analyses of the popularity of the current US president, many of which indicate one of the major reasons people who like him like him is because he makes things so simple and always has simple answers to even the most complex problems. Essentially, many people crave simplicity.

This seems to be backed up by psychology. According to the The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, people tend to prefer simplicity and dislike uncertainty. This often leads to misunderstanding of probability and compromising the ability for rational inference.

Essentially, to make it simple, our need for simplicity means we tend to ignore reason.

So Does This Mean We Should Embrace Simplicity?

If we’re seemingly “wired” for simplicity, shouldn’t we just embrace it? I’d argue that’s a very dangerous path and we’re not animals. We have intelligent brains and we should use them rather than letting our baser, more “simplistic” instincts rule.

That doesn’t mean we all need to do this when faced with every issue:


But if we all gave things a little more thought and looked beyond the simplest answer that we like because it’s easy, I argue, the world would certainly be a better place.