Complexity is very difficult for human brains, and we don’t much like it. We much prefer single cause-effect thinking and ‘this or this’ options to systemic thinking and ‘this and this’ options. Hence the vast quantity of memes and concepts widely shared, largely contradictory, and all intended to help guide our attitudes and behaviours in conditions of uncertainty. Complexity is confusing and stressful. We need the memes, the simple concepts, the straightforward protocols. They are the shortcuts that help guide us, over simplifications that function as maps to make it possible to navigate without overwhelm.
The shortfalls of over simplified ideas are all around us – they are like blunt tools misapplied to delicate situations. You should be a decent friend and stick by people through thick and thin but also weed out obnoxious and negative people from your life. Somewhere in the middle lies the messy complexity of real life, real relationships, and your own level of obnoxious and negative impact on the people around you. Over simplifications occur when we are overwhelmed by complexity and retreat to safe platitudes or rigid guidelines, or when we fail to engage with the topic or people with sufficient depth or empathy to understand it.
The New Zealand study has come to be what I term a ‘‘research-has-shown’’ moment in the public discourse, where the results of one study are overextended to reach an unwarranted conclusion.Steven M Schnell
The risks of this ‘research has shown’ approach are huge. It is a soothing idea and one that is often used in training – I’ve used it myself when talking about diversity in the workplace and myth busting ‘common wisdom’. But it’s so easily a tool that misrepresents complexity and reduces it to something over simplified and destructive.
Complexity has many shortfalls too, too much of it too often leads to decision fatigue, decision paralysis, confusion, shame, and hopelessness. If we can’t find guiding principles in difficult situations we are at risk of collapse or disengaging. This is incredibly important when the complexities are social, and a common dilemma for anyone working or designing interventions in the community sphere. I know how exhausting it feels to pull all of the issues on to the table and try and really grasp the context of problems. It’s tempting to give up and return to ‘business as usual’ even if we know it has serious limitations. Complexity can be too much to deal with and break our spirit if we feel doomed to failure no matter our intentions.
Complexity is also magnificent. It is nuance, shades of grey, texture, authenticity. It is the realness so often missing from curated and risk adverse stories and services. It’s the stories that don’t fit, the diversity not captured by the ‘normal template’ on which our world is built. It’s why we are not cogs in a machine and not replaceable to each other. It is part of the astonishing depth, the contradictions, and the richness of our lives. It’s one of the reasons people love art, which refuses categorization.
All the quotes in this post come from this delightful article analysing the “local food” movement and backlash in my public health studies this week, Food miles, local eating, and community supported agriculture: putting local food in it’s place, by Steven M. Schnell. While it is a very interesting account of that topic, it is also a defense of complexity and the process of deeply understanding the nuance of topics and communities.
What is missing in many of these discussions is recognition of food system participants as fully rounded individuals, balancing many different, sometimes contradictory concerns, and making decisions about food within the complexities of the real world. Any attempts to understand what the idea of ‘‘local’’ means to consumers must not discard this complexity in favor of rhetorical,ideological, and quantiﬁable simpliﬁcation.Steven M Schnell
The approach I’ve found most helpful in my work and speaking is to give value to both complexity and simplification. When I illustrate my presentations and use a combination of text and image, that’s a deliberate choice to help to capture a complex idea or important topic in a way that fits easily into our brain – the meme. Each contains a ‘halo’ of the complex information it was embedded in, but where that knowledge is swiftly lost, the meme remains and holds a place for it. It’s like a process of loops – we dive into complexity, then surface into a place holder – a principle, premise, learning, or guideline that stands in place for it. They are the nutshell ‘key take away ideas’ that lose value on their own, but when presented with the complexity are retained in a way that represents much more complex shifts in mindset and belief than a questionnaire check box evaluation could assess. For example, much of my work in mental health speaking is about humanising the person in pain. It’s not always explicit but is embedded throughout the materials and part of the more subtle shift in how we feel about and engage such people. Mindset shifts are the trickiest but by far the most effective changes we can make, and making complexity safer to navigate is a crucial part of that.
I’ll finish with this lovely one-liner, so applicable in community and health which are often uncomfortable bedfellows with neoliberal ideas of individual responsibility and free markets.
Doctrinaire free traders, it seems, are all in favor of freedom, unless consumers are using that freedom to choose values other than low prices to guide their decisions.Steven M Schnell