Sometime around 50,000 years ago, human consciousness gradually took on its contemporary form, with a higher level of awareness than any other animal, and an ability to learn and communicate elaborate ideas. The inventiveness of this brain had a marked influence on the complexity of its environment, resulting in the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions.
In the blink of an evolutionary eye, the complexity of the challenges that Homo sapiens face exploded. A mere two centuries ago, most of us were farmers; only three percent of us lived in cities. Since then our lives have been completely transformed: most of us in the developed world are knowledge workers and half of us live in crowded, rapidly expanding cities.
There are two pitfalls that we are vulnerable to when it comes to tackling complexity: our proclivity for oversimplifying and our tendency towards overconfidence. Both are coping mechanisms developed over many millennia.
Today’s challenges bear little resemblance to those that hundreds of generations of our ancestors faced. Climate change, large-scale terrorism, growing disparity between rich and poor, overcrowded urban centers: these types of problems are qualitatively different than the straightforward challenges that we have expertise in handling. Cause and effect are tightly linked and obvious for straightforward problems, and because the patterns that characterize them tend to be consistent from one situation to the next, learning (to cook or drive, for example) is a simple matter of practice. Complex challenges, on the other hand, are characterized by the intricate interaction among multiple causal factors. These interwoven systems of cause-effect relationships are hard to decipher because the cues to their connectedness are buried below the surface of immediately available information. No two complex problems are identical, which makes expertise very difficult to develop.
Here’s an example: the “Roll Back Malaria” program was launched in 1998 to reduce malaria in developing countries. The initiative included distribution of bed nets to pregnant women and children to protect them from disease-carrying mosquitoes. In fishing villages, however, the nets were used to catch and dry fish instead. Given the choice between possibly preventing sickness from malaria in the future and warding off starvation now, the villagers re-purposed the nets. In some areas, the distribution of nets actually increased the threat of starvation because fish stock was significantly depleted: the fine netting trapped and killed juvenile fish preventing them from maturing and reproducing. The hidden information of this complex problem was not uncovered because it was never sought. Nobody contemplated the possible alternative uses of the nets or how the villagers might prioritize the various uses given all the threats to their existence on a daily basis.
There are two pitfalls that we are vulnerable to when it comes to tackling complexity: our proclivity for oversimplifying and our tendency towards overconfidence. Both are coping mechanisms developed over many millennia. We simplify everything we think about – we have to because our limited brain power cannot handle the barrage of sensory data with which we are bombarded every moment of our lives. And when we arrive at preliminary conclusions that feel right to us, we rarely second-guess ourselves. Instead, we rush to conclude with confidence and finality. These two cognitive shortcuts are survival enhancing much of the time, but they lead us astray when it comes to complex problems because our expertise in decoding complexity is underdeveloped. Complex problems take a lot more time and exploration than we typically allot to them.
More and more of our professional and personal lives are dominated by complexity, making the need for greater cognitive sophistication all the more pressing. We need to educate youth about the thinking shortcuts we are prone to and the ways in which we can circumvent them. We must train them to ask more questions, to hunt for the missing, interconnected information, and to resist the temptation to “conclude and move on” by suspending judgment before drawing conclusions. Complexity demands a lot of cognitive flexibility and unlearning of hard-coded habits. The sooner we start educating youth along these lines, the easier it will be for them to navigate the complex world they are inheriting.