Simplicity Beats Nuance: Why the Wrong Answer Can Often Beat the Correct One

Nobody wants to be told their views are oversimplified. So, when thinking about issues, we tend to try to include as many factors as possible. The more nuanced our views become, the less likely they can be attacked for missing something important.

But are more nuanced ways of thinking about a problem actually more useful?

There’s at least some evidence that simpler models are better than more nuanced ones. Consider the example from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow involving trained counselors trying to predict student grades after their freshman year:

“The counselors interviewed each student for forty-five minutes. They also had access to high school grades, several aptitude tests, and a four-page personal statement. [A simpler model] used only a fraction of this information: high school grades and one aptitude test. Nevertheless [the model] was more accurate than 11 of the 14 counsellors.”

This result was far from unusual. Simple algorithms and models were often found to beat nuanced experts in a wide variety of professions from stock pickers to medical professionals.

The Problem with Nuance

Reality is complicated. It only seems natural that having models of reality that attempt to model this complexity are going to be more useful than simpler models.

But there are two problems with trying to hold a more nuanced mental model than a simpler one: implementation and falsifiability.

The problem of implementation is that if your model is more complicated it can be a lot harder to say exactly what should be done to fix a problem.

Say you hold the (more nuanced) view that success in your career is a combination of aptitude, connections, credentials, politicking and economic forces. What does that mean you should do next? Unfortunately, with so many possibly relevant factors, it’s very hard to say.

Instead, if you held the (more simplified) view that success in your career depends on doing your job very well, you’d have a much clearer picture of what needs to be done.

This problem of implementation could be disregarded, however, if it weren’t for another problem: falsifiability. Namely, more complex theories are harder to disprove because they explain a lot more. Unfortunately, explaining more is not a virtue. A theory that explains every possible occurrence tells you nothing.

In our simplified career model, we could learn fairly easily when it wasn’t a good model of our particular career or position if we saw that doing good work wasn’t well correlated with success. This may provoke us to look for a different model that is better suited to our situation. A more nuanced explanation, however, can seem to fit almost any feedback you get from the environment, so it can be very hard to tell whether the approach you’re using is actually working.

Don’t Look for the “Correct” Approach, But Many Useful “Wrong” Ones

The problem with simple models is that reality isn’t simple, so often they are wrong. But, instead of trying to incorporate more and more factors into our decision-making process, I think it’s better to consider multiple simple perspectives in isolation and switch between them as they become more accurate.

To make sense of our career example, you might consider that there are several simple models of career success: one that says success is a function of your network, one that says it’s a function of your ability, another that says having recognized credentials will determine your standing, all in isolation.

Then, formulate your goals and plans on the basis of these rather simpler models and see how far they can take you. When you get stuck with applying a certain model, you may adopt a different one.

Why Separate, Simpler Models Work Better than One, Nuanced Approach

Having separate, simple models works better than trying to have one perfect theory for a few reasons.

First, it avoids locking in on bad beliefs. If you accept, from the outset, that you’re going to be applying a simplified model, you’ll be less attached to it when it no longer applies. Accept that it might be useful in your situation and use it while it works. A perfect theory often struggles to adapt when the situation changes and you may get locked into a bad practice long after it has stopped working.

Second, simple models are easier to take action from. When Cal and I were working on our career course, we decided to adopt the simple model that career success depends on ability. For many people it’s a pretty good, but imperfect, model. Once that has been established, it becomes a lot easier to decide how to work on that goal, than it would be if we were also trying to coach students on a million other possibly relevant, but confusing factors.

Third, you can collect more simple models without having to declare one as correct and all others as wrong. Trying to have a nuanced, complete picture constantly forces you to defend your views against all contradictory models, which is often impossible. Having multiple, simplified models instead causes you to ask, “where might each of these apply?”

No Right Answers

I think this thinking strategy can be uncomfortable because we are always seeking the “correct” or “true” approach, despite the fact that for domains more complicated than particle physics, it’s unlikely that such a tractable truth exists in any absolute terms.

This leads to a philosophy of not seeking the “right” answer, but inviting multiple useful, but incomplete, answers. And while there may not be a correct answer, there are very often wrong ones, or models which are not useful in almost any situation. Being open to multiple possibly useful answers isn’t the same as saying every answer is useful.

Accepting simple models is merely accepting that all models are simplifications, and that it’s not possible to fully comprehend and exactly specify the correct answer for most areas of human interest. The goal isn’t to avoid any simplifications, but not to become trapped by them, given that they are unavoidable.

Should You Set Deadlines for Your Goals?

Say you have a personal goal: you want to build a business, lose weight or learn a language. Does it make more sense to set a deadline for that goal (i.e. I want to speak conversational French in 9 months) or should you ignore it?

I think this is an interesting question because, on the one hand, a deadline can motivate action. By knowing you need to accomplish something in a particular period of time, you’re less likely to procrastinate on it.

However, a deadline can also be deflating if it turns out your goals’ natural timeframe isn’t in line with your projections. While you can often accelerate progress by working a bit harder, many goals have a natural timeline they will be achieved at. If you set your deadline much faster than that mark, you may end up frustrated when it looks like you can’t reach it.

When Do Deadlines Work Well?

In my mind, deadlines work well for your goals in the following conditions:

  1. You can be confident your deadline and the natural timeframe for the goal are consistent.
  2. You have a fair bit of flexibility with how much effort you can put into the goal.

With the first point, setting a goal which has a timeframe that is much longer than your deadline will inevitably lead to frustration. For instance, if your goal is to lose 30 lbs in a month, not only is this unlikely to be achieved but you might have to risk your health to accomplish it. Similarly, if you want to build a six-figure online business in six months, you’ll also probably be disappointed, no matter how hard you work.

The second point, however, is important too. Deadlines work because they can motivate action. But if constraints mean you really can’t invest more time and energy towards a goal, there isn’t much point.

For example, if you’re trying to learn Japanese and you can only invest three hours per week, a deadline doesn’t make much sense to me. Unless you are prepared to increase the investment or work harder when you’re behind on your goal, a deadline is just there to taunt you.

What Goals Shouldn’t Have Deadlines?

Conversely, I think goals shouldn’t have hard deadlines when:

  1. You don’t know what the natural timeframe is for the goal.
  2. Your investment into the project is relatively fixed.

If you have no idea what is a reasonable deadline to set for a goal, I’m not sure it makes much sense to set one. Unless, of course, you can be prepared to ramp up the investment of time and effort by a large amount, in the case that you’re not meeting your target.

Set a Period of Focus, Instead of a Deadline

A good alternative, I’ve found, to setting goals with deadlines is to set a period of focus instead. This allows you to constrain your time, so you don’t have a project that extends into infinity. But instead of setting a firm standard you need to reach by the end of the project, you just see how far you can go.

The MIT Challenge, had a traditional deadline: pass all the exams and do the programming projects in one year. When I was learning Chinese, in contrast, I had a period of focus: learn Chinese over three months and see how much progress I can make.

Starting with a period of focus can be useful when you’re not sure what the natural timeframe is for a certain goal. Then, as you’re working on the goal, and have a better sense of where you might end up, you can set a more traditional deadline to motivate action. Halfway through my Chinese learning experiment, I decided to write the HSK 4, since I felt it was reachable with the time I had left.

What do you do? Do you tend to set deadlines for your goals, a period of focus or neither? What do you do to stay motivated and avoid frustration when working on your own projects?