Do you have products you stick with when shopping or are you out there exploring the new items on shelves? Some product lines fill metres of three-tiered shelves. However, exploring the choices and reading the ingredients to discern which is a better deal can lengthen a shopping trip by hours. The frustration we feel is justified: the rational mind is designed to cope with only three or four options, seven at most.
What happens when we are confronted with too much choice? We either revert to choosing that which we already know, make a gut-based choice, or walk away without buying anything. This complexity manifests in other areas of our lives in a similar way. We see this effect embedded in all sorts of situations that stymie decisions and make us feel like walking away or putting something off until later: completing annual taxation documents; considering changing banks or renegotiating a mortgage; getting the best energy contract for gas or electricity; dealing with the fee for using a toll road; and at a bigger level, strategies to deal with environmental issues leave our head spinning.
There are those who are happy to ignore this impact of complexity and hope that things sort themselves out without needing to get a sweat up. After all, mistakes happen. Most of us though, are keen to make the right decision first time round. Mistakes can be costly, they are to be feared, and so we deal with complexity onslaught through a sympathetic nervous system response - a threat response. This constant concern leads to what is called hyperarousal, and is the genesis of the anxiety epidemic. We melt down into a kind of mental catalepsy, sensing what needs to be dealt with, aware that we should be handling everything, but its just all too much.
Epidemic is the correct term: tens of millions of sufferers are now documented. A substantial review carried out a few years ago established that about 58 million people in the USA and a further 60 million people in the European Union suffer from this excess worry, fear and debilitating hyperarousal. In the intervening time things have not improved. If anything, the condition is now more 'medicalised' and as a result, more complicated.
Studies have linked increases in anxiety to a whole range of conditions: body inflammation, chronic disease, type-two diabetes, gut microbiome, technology addiction, isolation, competency and performance issues. But these are often not the starting point. Instead it is worry and fear that create chronic stress, arising from negative expectation that is learnt, compounded by concern that we might be missing out, feeling powerless to change an outcome, and drowning in the complexity of life.
But what can be done to right the situation? It is no use saying that we need to be less thin-skinned, more of an optimist, change our diet, or approach life so that we let worries fall away like water off a duck's back. These might all be good advice but this approach simply lends more complexity to an already overloaded life by demanding that we change in order to cope.
The answer many people are reaching for is simplicity. The conscious mind does not like to grapple with complexity. We see this in the rise of manifesto-parties, far right and far left, with the move back to fundamentalism, and with the election to office of leaders who speak in oversimplified ways. Simplification produces an immediate response: relaxation and re-energising.
There is a lesson in this for those seeking to persuade. When the message is complex people respond with anxiety. This observation explains recent shifts in electoral power, the success of megalomaniacs around the globe, election outcomes that analysts misread, and the failure of critically important campaigns.
But simplicity does not have to mean binary choices or loss of detail. What is needed is integration. When we know how things relate to one another they become simple and anxiety falls away. This is why education changes people attitudes to previously complex fields. A financial planner learns categories and gains an understanding about how these fit in a spreadsheet; complexity melts away and is replaced with simplicity. Familiarity with the process leads to relaxation. My career has involved teaching people how to use complex research equipment. At first the anxiety level is high but as the information becomes integrated - as the student learns how the parts relate to each other and sees process rather than a hundred different options - a simplicity emerges that leads to pleasure and confidence.
We do not need to go it alone. We have gone through enough decades dismissing expertise. It is time now to seek out those with a good track record who can show us the simplicity that they see. As if in answer to this issue there is a winnowing at work these days in this leaner economy, punishing those who over-complicate, especially to bamboozle, manipulate or mislead. It is to be hoped that the lesson is learnt quickly where it matters.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb