Our world is dominated by ideas of problems and solutions. Of questions and answers. And I’m beginning to wonder if there are cognitive biases at play that prevent us from being able to contend with the complexity that often arises from the answers that are required to solve seemingly simple questions.
The trigger for this thought was my weekly confessional with Chris on WB40. On this week’s episode, we talked about the challenges of reducing energy consumption in the home. Chris has a wealth of experience of the world of managing commercial buildings and is sceptical about the promise that is made about “Smart Thermostats” and other home IoT devices. While putting a better front end onto what are often awful heating control systems is probably an excellent thing, the idea that we can have everywhere in a house “at the right temperature” to Chris seems like a pointless pursuit.
Temperature is a relative concept. If I’ve been sitting in my office for a while, then I might be finding myself getting a bit chilly. If someone walks in from a crisp winter’s day outside then they’ll find it hot. There is no “right” temperature.
But the allure of the Nest Smart Thermostat, well, “How do we get Nest to provide perfect heating?” is simple, isn’t it?
Or take the gift that keeps on giving, Brexit. As simple a question as could be determined, one with a binary Yes/No answer, framed everything that has happened since the referendum and “Just get on with it!” is frequently heard.
But if the question had been framed as a multiple choice exercise with complex preference voting (“Would you like to leave the EU/EEA/Customs Union and then be able to place focus on democracy/immigration/trade deals with the outside world whilst retaining/giving up your rights to freedom of movement of labour within the 27?”) maybe things wouldn’t have panned out quite like they appear to be doing so.
I’ve referred back to the bible of biases, Ralf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly. I’ve been able to find many that might well apply to our Brexit nation at the moment, and a few that appear to not do so (our usual preference for the status quo, for example), there doesn’t seem to be one for simple questions.
So here’s my hypothesis: if a question or problem can be stated very simply, then a complicated answer causes cognitive dissonance, and as a result, we will often refuse to believe the complexity of the response (and not challenge the simplicity of the question).
Even worse, as Douglas Adams famously showed, if there is a simple answer to a simple question, it may well be utterly unintelligible.