We like a world that makes sense. We want simple clean meanings that explain why, when and how something happened. Explanations graciously grant security—if we can explain it, we believe we can control it. But most happenings have a complex slough of causes, intertwining to create the momentous NOW. Our tendency is to pacify our need for meaning by over simplification, ignoring relevant and conflicting facts, and settling on a graspable explanation.
Most Life Experiences Have Complex Causes
Most life experiences lack a tidy, neat cause. In our drive for meaning, we force meaning by creating over-simplified stories. We extract the most salient (subjective) cause from the mass of influencers, choosing a preferred explanation that soothes our ego, and dodges responsibility. We point our finger, and turn our backs to further examinations, failing to consider alternate explanations, especially explanations that include personal contributions that invited or magnified the crippling event.
We oversimplify using a psychological process called splitting. This is good; that is bad. He is a terrible person; she is the most wonderful person in the world. Republicans are evil; Democrats are communists. These over-simplifications of judgement relieve cognitive demand but invite woefully inaccurate depictions of reality. Events, people, and political agendas have positive and negative qualities.
Joseph Burgo PhD. explains “when we feel unable to tolerate the tension and confusion aroused by complexity, we ‘resolve’ that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the other.” Burgo goes on to present the consequence of splitting “as a result, we may feel a sort of comfort in believing we know something with absolute certainty; at the same time, we’ve over-simplified a complex issue, robbing it of its richness and vitality” (2013).
See All-or-Nothing Mindsets for more on this topic
Surprises and Conflicts
Experience often ignites emotions. Our homeostatic balance is disrupted by surprising events, communicating that “something is wrong.” When a conflict exists between expectations and reality, we feel it, our bodies signal the surprise and commandeer attention. Often, something is not wrong. We are just challenged by the complexity. Over-simplifying life is not the answer. Over-simplifications lead to narrowmindedness. We grab hold of simplifying biases that limit life.
A complex society, full of differences and varieties, provides more opportunity. Stephen Davies wrote that people in complex environments “are more likely to be fulfilled, their chances of happiness are greater, and they will find it easier to escape or remove themselves from intolerable or even just unpleasant circumstances” (2018).
Life isn’t simple. We can’t boil everything down to bad and good—although we may in ignorant over simplified appraisals. Information constantly conflicts. Reality conflicts with beliefs. Desires compete with goals. Personalities clash in connection. We are constantly challenged to balance, make sense of, and create order in a very messy and complex world.
See Cognitive Dissonance for more on this topic
Mindfulness Instead of Over Simplification
When the dissonance is recognized, we can examine the stirring of feelings, uncovering the raw emotion, evaluate the conflict and catch the simplified biased meanings. This is mindfulness.
Simply watching the complex process (experience, emotions, interpretations) is fascinating. We are emotional beings, enduring constant collisions that provoke emotions, providing ample opportunities for non-judgmental explorations. We can mindfully watch the complex functioning of our mind without over simplification of the cause. Often imperceptible, we spin webs of deceit in the darkest corners; we bob and weave around responsibility, support faulty hypothesizes and draw illogical justifications for stupid and misguided action.
We can justify anything; most notorious and nasty acts have some reason; the actor feels justified in their horrendous crimes against humanity because they can over simplify by focusing on a single cause outside their realm of control. Pointing outward and accusing with venom, “you’re bad.”
By over simplifying meanings behind the reality of complex interrelated cause, blaming personally identified forces, we escape the heavy responsibility of considering reality. We conceal laziness, selfishness, and ineptness, while also dismissing social causes, freedom of others and the unknown.
Over-Simplified Explanations for Complexity
Over simplified explanations ignore complexity, allowing simpleness of mind to reign, while avoiding heavier cognitive demands of thought; succeeding (and flourishing) demands more. By blaming easy targets, we channel energy away from workable solutions. Letting go of responsibility initially feels good; it’s a relief at a heavy cost.
Over simplification litters the highway of life with unfulfilled dreams. Justifications excuse addictions, laziness, and abuse, crying out, “It’s not my fault.” Most of us don’t live with extreme chaos; we enjoy order and structure. Our justifications are subtle, nestled in our protected world where we function, work and play. Self-deceptions of over simplification dwell here, as well, hindering growth and altering futures.
Over simplified explanations ignore complexity, allowing simpleness of mind to reign, while avoiding heavier cognitive demands of thought”~T. Franklin Murphy
We make trade-offs to ease difficult choices. Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, explains “Trade-offs are apparent in everyday judgment and reasoning as well. “When making judgments and decisions, we employ a variety of informal rules and strategies that simplify fundamentally difficult problems and allow us to solve them without excessive effort and stress.” Gilovich then warns that “these strategies are generally effective, but the benefit of simplification is paid for at the cost of occasional systematic error. There is, in other words, an ease/accuracy trade-off in human judgment” (2008).
Relationships and Over Simplification
Relationship success is labored with blurred meanings concealed in complexity. Instead of simple and pure communication, our conversations carry hidden meanings. Words fused with emotions and straddled with accusing implications rock connections.
Hidden motivations bounce between partners impacting perceived meanings. Especially here, in the vulnerability of the need to belong, our minds default to over simplification of meaning, excusing complexity, settling on blame, protecting our ego rather than repair and resolve problems. We slap on an over simplified label, blame the partner and invest energy to manipulate and fix their problems.
See Relationship Drama for more on this topic
Most couple conflicts flow from differences (and pasts) rather than right versus wrong. Neither partner is wrong; just different. Most positions have kernels of truth with drawbacks—trade-offs. People order value differently, having more intense feelings on different sides of a proposed trade-off. Labeling (good or evil, right or wrong, giving or selfish) ignores the complexity and simply judges an act by our limited biases of what we prefer.
Our task is to mindfully examine situations deeper, discovering our involvement (actions and interpretations) in a disappointing event.
Emotions and Meaning
Conflict, by nature, creates discomfort, drawing attention to issues of survival; a built-in protection to effectively respond. But these emotions are not pure, influenced by experience. Like software utilizes hardware, experience records on the machinery of the brain. These memories form the basis for emotional responses in the present. Hurts and joys are remembered and cast a shadow on interpretations.
While some modules in our mind respond with emotions, other modules seek meaning. Measuring experience with the accompanying emotions, we interpret life in digestible ways, assigning meanings—magnifying discomfort or enhancing joys. Interpretations solidify importance.
A mundane, inconsequential event assigned larger meaning may trigger powerful emotions. Conversely, an event with great significance may be dismissed. Interpretations draw upon the past to add color to the present. Current events, associated with painful past, generate forceful feeling. In these momentous moments of assigning meaning, we must stand alert for over simplification, catching judgements early, stepping back and expanding our view.
An Example of Over Simplification
An example of over simplification would be after a person’s company skips over them for promotion, they explain, “they don’t like women.” While this may be partially true. Many businesses have built in systemic biases. However, even in biased organizations, this most likely is only one small factor in a very complex decision. Decisions to promote often go through a series of stages, involving multiple people. Work product, social skills, ability to lead, and a host of other qualities contribute to the final decision. Biases and subjective opinions sneak in to these evaluations.
However, pinpointing an over-simplified single cause, especially a cause we have no control over, may leave us woefully blind to many of the factors we have control over and improvements we can make.
A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic
We should neither deny nor avoid feelings that are awakened by conflict. Avoiding discomfort rewards with an escape, relieving the annoyance; while problems continue to fester. The growing gorge between perception and reality weakens motivations to change. We don’t see the need when we externalize our sorrows by projecting them onto outside and uncontrollable forces. We claim victimhood, feel life is unfair, and sorrow ourselves to the grave. Consequently, we destroy our futures with undeserved pats on the back, excusing failure by finding over simplified meaning to blame. Our ignorance protects and misses our significant contributions to our own misery.
Our response to core feelings determines whether we choose a path of growth or stagnation. By opening our minds, examine the depths of complexity, and analyzing over simplification of meanings, we can discover hidden truths that when attended to provide the changes needed for experiencing the flourishing life we desire.
Burgo, Joseph (2013). Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. New Rise Press
Davies, Stephen (2018). Life Is Complicated, and That Is Good. American Institute of Economic Research. Published 9-27-2018. Accessed 5-17-2023
Gilovich, Thomas (2008). How We Know What Isn’t So. Free Press; Reprint edition