We live in a world of soundbites and dumbed-down media messages. Having so many people competing for our attention and trying to capture that attention in a short time is bound to lead to an oversimplification of complex issues much of the time. Add to this the fact that there are so many people trying to earn a living by coming up with simple solutions to complex problems and a strong picture of oversimplification starts to emerge.
Sometimes it is a straightforward matter of unscrupulous people trying to sell ‘snake oil’, magic potions to cure all our ills, ranging from wonder diets to get-rich-quick schemes. But much of the time there are people who are – up to a point – offering potentially helpful guidance and understanding, but doing so in a way that does not tell the whole story. For example, there is much that has been written from a psychological perspective which offers useful insights, but does not take account of the social context in which human psychology operates. By the same token, some people can offer important sociological insights, but without considering what these mean for people at a psychological level. If we want to have a sound understanding of people we need to have a more holistic perspective that incorporates both psychological and sociological aspects (hence the common use of the term ‘psychosocial’) rather than choosing between the two perspectives.
What can also lead to an oversimplification of complex issues is pressure of work. If you are under pressure to come up with a solution to someone’s problem (or your own), easy answers can have great appeal, even though easy answers are generally far removed from the best answers and are often dangerous. This can lead to digging ourselves into a deeper hole. That is, when one easy answer causes further problems, we may be tempted to look for another easy answer, rather than step back and draw on our professional knowledge, skills and values in a spirit of reflective practice.
I once heard someone say ‘The further away you are from something, the simpler it seems’. I think that is a very wise insight, as so often people don’t look closely enough at what they are dealing with, and the result can be a dangerously distorted picture – for example, when people don’t look closely enough at the risks involved in a situation and then go to one dangerous extreme (complacency) or the other (a risk-averse overreaction).
However, we also have to be aware of the dangers of the opposite of oversimplifying a complex situation, namely overcomplicating a simple matter. One example of this would be the tendency for many academic writers to present relatively straightforward concepts in very obscure, overly complex language. Sometimes concepts are very complex and very difficult to explain in simple terms, but that is not always the case.
In practice situations we can sometimes overcomplicate the simple because of anxiety. If we are dealing with a tense situation or one where emotions are running high, we may oversimplify, but the danger of going in the opposite direction can be present too. For example, I have come across many situations where someone is grieving and, for the moment, just needs reassurance and human warmth, but is actually being offered much more than that (reflecting the common false assumption that anyone who is grieving needs grief counselling).
So, how do make sure we get the balance right by not oversimplifying the complex and not overcomplicating the simple? Well, if I were to give a simple formula, I would be falling into the very trap I am warning against. What it boils down to is thinking situations through before we respond to them, so that we have chance to consider what level of complexity we are dealing with.