Complexity Bias: Why we overcomplcate everything

The human tendency to ignore the simple effective solutions in favour of the complicated less effective alternatives
Complexity Bias: Why we overcomplcate everything
Jake McNeill
June 17, 2021
5 min read
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“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated” — Confucius

Humans love to overcomplicate situations. We are drawn to complexity. 

This is down to our complexity bias. We are subconsciously drawn to seek complex solutions regardless of the problem. It’s the complicity that gives it false credibility when the simple solution is discounted even though it is often more effective.  

If we’re having panic attacks we will visit a therapist for months when really we need to learn deep breathing techniques ( square breathing) that are scientifically proven to hack the nervous system and prevent panic attacks.

Square or box breathing takes minutes to perform and is used by every elite athlete and armed forces regiment to hack their nervous system and remain calm under extreme pressure. 

Any half-decent therapist will offer the same solution eventually. 

The problem?  It seems an overly simple solution to what we consider to be a huge problem.

This means we have little faith in it working.

Panic attacks are just your heartbeat going above 130bpm and entering into fight or flight mode.

The science is clear, square breathing will regulate your heartbeat and you will return to normal. 

Huge problems require huge solutions, not simple ones.

But the problems aren’t huge they just feel that way because of our complexity bias. 

If you boil them down to the core, the problems are as simple as the solutions. 

Marketers know this

We are sold on over-complicated expensive diets.

A diet’s popularity blows up online. It may be Atkins, or Keto, or Paleo. They all have developed backstories as to exactly why they are superior to other diets.

The diet goes into minute detail and fawns over the science as to why their diet is superior to all the other complicated diets. 

The truth? The best and easiest way to lose weight is simply to eat less and exercise more. 

That’s it. But that seems too simple, right? 

We are fed loads of marketing jargon when really we just need a car to get us from A to B. That’s it. 

How many 4x4s are actually used off-road? I couldn't find the data. A tiny percentage is my best guess. Most 4 x 4 s are used to take the kids to school in urban areas.

We don’t need a four-wheel-drive in order to do that. 

We create elaborate plans and rituals which give us the illusion of productivity. Complicated morning routines for example.

We overthink everything. Looking for the complex when really simplicity is the key.

People spend their whole lives looking for purpose and meaning when the framework can be created with just 5 questions. 

K.I.S.S ( keep it simple, stupid)

K.I.S.S is a US Navy design principle first noted in 1960. 

The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design, and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. The phrase has been associated with aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson.

First Principle Thinking 

First principle thinking is a mental model first used by Aristotle. Elon Musk credits it with getting his rockets into space and reducing the size and cost of electric batteries to power Teslas.

First principle thinking removes the complexity and reduces the systems to the bare fundamentals. Only then can you rebuild the concept by focusing on the growth of fundamentals without the confusion of complexity. 

Worse is better

Worse is better is a term conceived by Richard P. Gabriel in an essay of the same name to describe the dynamics of software acceptance. 

It refers to the argument that the quality of software does not necessarily increase with functionality: that there is a point where less functionality ("worse") is a preferable option ("better") in terms of practicality and usability. 


The design must be simple, both in implementation and interface. Simplicity is the most important consideration in a design.


The design should be correct in all observable aspects. It is slightly better to be simple than correct.


The design must be consistent.


The design must cover as many important situations as is practical. All reasonably expected cases should be covered. Completeness can be sacrificed in favour of any other quality.

Bias aware

Be aware of your complexity bias. Question your thinking. When you are faced with problems or solutions you should seek to simplify both.

The problems will seem big. That’s the bias screwing with your head.

Break it down to the fundamentals of the issue using first principle thinking. 

Here’s a really easy example:

  • This article is just a series of paragraphs.
  • Which are just a series of sentences
  • Which are just a series of words
  • Which are just a series of letters.

Therefore the fundamental is not the complexity of the article but the simplicity of the letters and words. 

Break everything down to the core fundamentals and seek the simple solution to the simple problem.

A bit about me

I help maverick artists and creators make a racket in crowded markets, crush the creative blocks that hold them back, and turn audiences into superfans

Every Creative Rebel’s worst enemy?

Lack of strategy. Creative mediocrity: Being bland. Staying in our lane. Creating in our comfort zone and following the crowds.

The Goal?

To create authentic work that matters. Take creative risks, avoid creative burnout, and make a full-time living with our passions.

I’m a former multi-platinum artist manager who got burnt out and became a creative blogger, coach, and consultant.

I’ve challenged myself to write 50 articles in 50 working days. 25 down, 25 to go.

You can read more in the archives here. Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

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