Simplicity scarcity

Janurary 2023

Most people find complex things (products, thought pieces, etc.) more impressive than simple things. Much of academic writing rides on this premise. In tech, it can slow the adoption of new products. Anything sleeker than Salesforce must not be as powerful, right?

The complexity bias exists because when you look around, smarter people have more complex ideas. But that's because smarter people work on harder problems. When you stratify problem space by difficulty, smarter people have simpler ideas.

Given a problem, the first solution you find generally has excess complexity. It's a semi-random point in the solution space, so it's statistically unlikely to be the simplest. Simplification requires you to keep searching, with each reduction taking exponentially longer, because there's exponentially fewer simple solutions than there are complex ones. Situations where this hard work is incentivized are scarce. Often you just need a working solution, simplicity be damned. And too often there's an incentive to increase complexity--to obfuscate. The four main reasons are:

  1. To appear smart. This is common in academia, consulting, and any other setting where receiving money requires convincing non-experts that you’re smart. When they don’t know of a simpler solution themselves, they’ll use the complexity of your solution as a proxy for the difficulty of the problem you’ve solved.

  2. To create a barrier to entry. This trick is often used by lawyers to ensure that clients keep coming back to them to ask questions about the documents they wrote rather than simply reading the documents themselves. It’s also used by the Myers-Biggs Type Indicator; if their "personality traits" were English words used correctly, like in the Big Five, people wouldn’t need a test to know where they fall.

  3. To avoid offending people. Simple explanations can be offensive. Sometimes, their simplicity is the very reason for their offensiveness. Verbosity is a core tenet of politeness; it shows you put in effort. When you make a topic seem simple, it can offend those who spent years studying the topic. Other times, simple explanations are offensive because they’re more true than the standard narratives. Truth tends to be simpler than fiction because logical consistency is built-in, and fictions often exist to mask offensive truths. Many social phenomena can be explained more simply, but elaborating this point on the public internet would not be worth it for me.

  4. To publish a book. Although this is usually just a special case of #1, publishing books can genuinely help you reach audiences that other mediums can’t. But there’s a perverse expectation for books to be a certain size, a size far beyond the scope of the average author’s original ideas. So most books end up being a page worth of ideas dragged out to book-length via needless anecdotes, examples, analogies, definitions, quotes, flowery prose, and paraphrasings of Wikipedia pages, interlaced with rehashes of the main point.

Sometimes it may seem the incentive is to simplify, when it isn't. To make a piece of content viral, it needs to be simple enough for a layperson to consume. But because simplification is so difficult, creators usually instead dumb down the material, stripping out or falsifying the parts that are hard to understand. Consumers leave satisfied because they’re ill-equipped to realize they missed the important parts.

Consequently, almost everything we see in the world is either dumbed down or overcomplicated. Most people never realize hard things can be simpler.

Simplicity has three benefits:

  1. Minimizes time-to-fully-understand.

  2. Generalizes better. A derivative of Occam’s razor is that simpler solutions tend to cover more cases.

  3. Is memorable for longer.

Very occasionally are these advantages are so desired and unadulterated that an idea is distributed in its simplest form. It can happen when someone is financially dependent on the efficacy of other peoples’ long-term execution--Paul Graham, for example, wrote simple startup advice for the companies he invested in. It can also happen when someone wants to target people who appreciate simplicity, as is the case with 3blue1brown. But most often, simplified ideas are kept secret, for personal use and close friends. The simplest version of any idea is probably in someone’s private journal.