Why people seek easy answers
We live in a complex world that is constantly changing, but the human brain struggles to cope with so much complexity. This difficulty often leads people to seek easy answers. Though understandable, that tendency creates multiple problems for policy, society, the economy and more — and it is particularly problematic during a pandemic.
Each individual is a multifaceted being. Each person has different moods, thoughts and beliefs. Each man and woman has their own experiences, which shape how they see the world. When we zoom out to consider an extended family or community, the picture becomes even more complex — with multiple individuals interacting with each other under varying circumstances. All of those individuals are always aging and changing, so their relationships often shift.
Zoom out further to the national and finally the global level and the world becomes immensely complex. Nearly 8 billion individuals add up to a constantly evolving system that shapes the global economy, security, society, politics, human health and the environment.
This vast network of constantly shifting interconnections between individuals should make it clear that the world is a complex place. It should be evident that shaping effective economic, security, health and environmental policies is therefore very difficult. Even highly intelligent, well-educated, experienced policymakers will struggle to manage policies in a complex, evolving world.
However, people often want to believe that the world is fairly simple, with easily defined problems and simple solutions. Multiple psychology studies have shown that the human brain struggles to manage uncertainty and nuance. The brain typically searches for clarity and easy explanations. This desire for certainty increases when people are stressed, threatened or faced with heightened uncertainty.
Discomfort with ambiguity often leads people to search for straightforward explanations — when people are stressed, they do this even more quickly and with less thought for critically evaluating information. Once they have decided on an answer, people often hold firm to that explanation or solution, even if evidence or circumstances change. In order to reduce complexity, people often choose simplistic tools — such as their group’s prejudices or an ideological framework — to find answers that feel right.
The desire to believe that the world is far simpler than it is leads many people to assume that problems and solutions are obvious. If they believe this, then it becomes easy to feel that a country’s leaders must be inefficient when they fail to quickly solve problems. People often do not want to accept that policymakers are facing incredibly complex, evolving situations; it feels better to argue that everything would be fine if leaders and policymakers would just enact simple solutions. This can lead to deep distrust in governing authorities and “elites” more generally.
For example, many Americans today want to believe that the US could have defeated the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Some interpret the failure to do so as evidence that the nation’s leaders are too weak to do the right thing. Often, people assign those traits to a politician who belongs to a different political party, while allowing more nuance for their own party’s leaders. For many people, that is more comforting than acknowledging the complexity of operating in a complicated country like Afghanistan, the multiple motivations that drove different American policymakers over 20 years, and many other factors.
These problems are not specific to a particular culture or country. It is a human instinct. However, when combined with particular types of political systems or widespread discontent, the need for simplicity can be dangerous. Populists can win power by blaming “elites” — reinforcing the idea that there are obvious answers to a society’s problems and the elites have failed to implement them.
Demagogues deepen divisions in a society by blaming all problems on a few groups, usually targeting “elites,” foreigners, immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, or adherents to a particular ideology. Demagogic leaders then tell people that the solutions are simple, and the leader can solve the problems if people put him in power. Once in charge, when he ultimately fails to improve people’s lives, he just blames one of the target groups.
The desire to believe that the world is far simpler than it is leads many people to assume that problems and solutions are obvious.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Populists and demagogues — the two frequently go together — explain the world in simple terms and offer easy answers. Sometimes their proposed solutions are specific and other times they are vague but emotionally connect with their audience.
The pandemic has posed especially difficult challenges for scientists and policymakers who are trying to communicate in an uncertain environment that is constantly shifting as new data or variants emerge. While many experts and leaders could communicate better, part of the problem is that people often do not want to hear honest explanations that include uncertainty.
Communicating complexity in times of crisis is a two-way street. Policymakers need to stay in touch with their citizens and hear their concerns. Governments should be responsive to the needs of the people. Educational institutions and the media should encourage critical thinking that acknowledges ambiguity and is honest about political and economic trade-offs. In return, citizens should acknowledge that no one has all the answers and not expect policymakers to quickly fix everything. Citizens should understand that policies and recommendations might need to change to adapt to evolving circumstances.
Embracing complexity can be difficult and stressful, but insisting on easy answers is a recipe for ineffective solutions and further frustration.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch