UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE

By Bill Frayer

So Why Do We Reward Those Who Oversimplify?

 

Ihave always been somewhat of a political junkie. I loved to watch the political conventions and the presidential debates. I became involved with political campaigning when I was young, and I have always been interested to read what our politicians propose to get us out of the messes they are often themselves responsible for having created!

Now that I have retired, and have time to reflect on all the politics I witnessed over the years, I think I can safely, though sadly, conclude that one of the most prominent features successful politicians share is their ability to oversimplify complex issues. I doubt they even believe themselves sometimes, but they clearly understand an important political principle: oversimplification wins votes.

Think of two politicians participating in a debate or town hall meeting. Let’s assume the first politician is a shameless over-simplifier. Let’s further assume that the second politician is a thoughtful fellow who understands that most questions are indeed complex and cannot be understood simply or put to rest with a silver bullet. Although the second politician may be more honest and potentially a far better leader, he will likely not be elected. Let’s imagine the dialogue.

The first question goes to politician number 1. Madam, what do you plan to do about the increase in violent crime in our city?

Excellent question. I have a clear commitment to fighting crime, and my plan is straightforward. Once elected, I will build more prisons and make sure that every criminal is incarcerated. No paroles. No early releases. No plea deals. In my administration, we will put crime behind bars where it belongs! [Crowd roars with delight.]

Thank you. I’ll address the same question to politician #2. Sir?

[Awkward pause.] Well, certainly sounds easy, huh? But, of course, crime is indeed a complex issue. To really address the issue, we must examine the causes of crime and research on which responses to crime provide long-term results. Simply slapping a popular solution on the problem may not help, and may even make the problem worse… [Restlessness in the crowd. Someone is heard to comment,” He won’t even answer the question!”]

This example illustrates one of the most difficult dilemmas for contemporary politicians in our media-driven society. The thoughtful person who understands that our problems are difficult and not easily fixed is forced to convince voters that he or she can efficiently provide a solution. The second politician, in trying to be honest about the nature of the problem, will likely not be given much of a chance to outline his complete solution, and the voters will walk away with the impression that he is refusing to give a direct answer. Even though the first politician’s answer is oversimplified and superficial, it will be far more successful at winning votes. Given a glib over-simplifier running against a thoughtful and honest thinker, the over-simplifier will almost always win the points.

In a way, it’s easy to understand this. As humans, we have a tendency to prefer the simple to the complex, the easy to the difficult. So we will naturally prefer those who tell what we most want to hear. Therefore we get crazy promises about cutting taxes without affecting services, wars which can be fought quickly, without much sacrifice, and most recently, that you can buy a larger home than you thought you could afford because house prices will always increase. What a laugh that last one is!

So what’s the harm in rewarding those who shamelessly oversimplify? Once again, it’s that we are allowing others to co-opt our thinking. We are allowing ourselves to pretend that life is easier than it seems and may not require the hard work of doing our own careful analysis and thinking. I am convinced that it was a widespread acceptance of an oversimplified view of economic principles that led to the disaster in the financial and housing markets over the past decade or so.

To anyone who would have applied clear thinking to the unprecedented rise in real estate prices, it would have been obvious that this trend was non-sustainable and could lead to this type of collapse. But, of course, even the professionals can fall prey to oversimplified thinking, especially when it feeds their own greed!

Next month, I will look at some specific types of oversimplification errors which are easy for us to make.

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