The Devil is in the Detail

The Devil is in the Detail
Written for and Delivered to
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland
November 3, 2019
© The Rev. Joseph M Cherry

Wisdom from the Global Scripture

Complexity Bias: Why We Prefer Complicated to Simple
 by Anonymous

Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts.

Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one. That’s usually the option with the most assumptions and regressions. As a result, when we need to solve a problem, we may ignore simple solutions — thinking “that will never work” — and instead favor complex ones.

To understand complexity bias, we need first to establish the meaning of three key terms associated with it: complexity, simplicity, and chaos.

Complexity is hard to define when we’re put on the spot, although most of us recognize it when we see it. The Cambridge Dictionary defines complexity as “the state of having many parts and being difficult to understand or find an answer to.” The definition of simplicity is the inverse: “something [that] is easy to understand or do.” Chaos is defined as “a state of total confusion with no order.”

Complex systems contain individual parts that combine to form a collective that often can’t be predicted from its components. Consider humans. We are complex systems. We’re made of about 100 trillion cells and yet we are so much more than the aggregation of our cells. You’d never predict what we’re like or who we are from looking at our cells.

Complexity bias is our tendency to look at something that is easy to understand, or look at it when we are in a state of confusion, and view it as having many parts that are difficult to understand.

We often find it easier to face a complex problem than a simple one.

A person who feels tired all the time might insist that their doctor check their iron levels while ignoring the fact that they are unambiguously sleep deprived. Someone experiencing financial difficulties may stress over the technicalities of their telephone bill while ignoring the large sums of money they spend on cocktails.

Marketers make frequent use of complexity bias.

They do this by incorporating confusing language or insignificant details into product packaging or sales copy. Most people who buy “ammonia-free” hair dye, or a face cream which “contains peptides,” don’t fully understand the claims. Terms like these often mean very little, but we see them and imagine that they signify a product that’s superior to alternatives.

How many of you know what probiotics really are and how they interact with gut flora?

…Complexity bias is interesting because the majority of cognitive biases occur in order to save mental energy. For example, confirmation bias enables us to avoid the effort associated with updating our beliefs. We stick to our existing opinions and ignore information that contradicts them. Availability bias is a means of avoiding the effort of considering everything we know about a topic. It may seem like the opposite is true, but complexity bias is, in fact, another cognitive shortcut. By opting for impenetrable solutions, we sidestep the need to understand. Of the fight-or-flight responses, complexity bias is the flight response. It is a means of turning away from a problem or concept and labeling it as too confusing. If you think something is harder than it is, you surrender your responsibility to understand it.

Faced with too much information on a particular topic or task, we see it as more complex than it is. Often, understanding the fundamentals will get us most of the way there. Software developers often find that 90% of the code for a project takes about half the allocated time. The remaining 10% takes the other half. Writing — and any other sort of creative work — is much the same. When we succumb to complexity bias, we are focusing too hard on the tricky 10% and ignoring the easy 90%.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

— Confucius


Have you ever gotten caught in a thought spiral?
Have you ever found your mind spinning around a problem,

            And you’re sure that with just a little bit more data,
            A little bit more insight
            You could figure this conundrum out?

            That you should be able to figure this out, because you’re a smart enough person?

Have you ever really over-simplified a problem to your own peril?
Have you ever, 2 or 30 seconds after saying something,

            2 or 3 days after saying something,

Realized that you missed some social clue

            Some bit of information that would’ve been useful
            Some insight that would’ve kept you from getting into trouble
            Some pearl of wisdom that would’ve prevented you from harming someone else?

I have.

It was the balance of these two ideas, either making something far more complex than it needed to be, or really not paying attention to the details, that brought me to the quote that is the title of this morning’s sermon.

The phrase “the Devil is in the detail”, was coined by Mies van der Rohe, architect.  It’s likely that his phrase was a response to or against “God is in the details,” coined by fellow architect Louis Sullivan.

Before I go any further, I should confess to you that this is my second sermon this week on this topic. The other sermon that I wrote for today got lost in a thought spiral, and will, hopefully, never see the light of day.

See, I was digging around, trying to find exactly the phrase, or idea that would tie this whole question together, and I began to fall into a research spiral. 

The two phrases coined by these two architects dragged me into considering their relationship to each other in time, space and design.  And while it was interesting, the things I learned, and the great detail in which I learned them, were not particularly helpful.

I researched Mies, I researched Louis. I learned where they were born, about their marriages, both having failed for different reasons. I kind of already knew about their architectural styles, having living in Chicago where they both designed iconic buildings, and I could see how the two styles were almost diametrically opposed, and how Mies really rejected Louis’s style, Louis already having been dead by the time Mies came to the United States, but who’s architectural influence was still alive and well in his own work, and the work of his apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright.

And I felt like I should’ve been able to wrestle this data into some form of sermon that would convey what I had learned, because I said to myself “you should be able to figure this out, because you’re a smart enough person,”

See, I found myself in the very trap I was trying to warn against.

And rather than laugh it off, I became frustrated and dug my heels in even more, because I should be able to make this all work.

After a couple of hours of this, ok more like 8 or 9 of them, I realized that I had to abandon the sermon, go away for a couple of hours, and sit down again.

And so I did. 

I decided to tell you about the ironic experience of warning you about what I’m calling a thought spiral and getting trapped in one, rather than make you bear the weight of the written evidence of that thought spiral.

But later, if you want to talk about Sullivan and van der Rohe, I have a whole new set of data points I can share!

The other side of the coin, as it were, is when we don’t take the time, don’t have the energy, don’t have the mental bandwidth to really delve into something.

Here’s one example of low consequence that happened to me. Several years ago, it was during a Water Communion, I decided that for the time for all ages I would have the adults and the kids pretend to be hydrogen and oxygen molecules, respectively. The goal was that I would talk to the kids about how each of these elements existed in the air, which they do, and how when these two gases combine by holding hands, two adults per kid, two hydrogen molecules to an oxygen, they become water. Something unlike what they were before, because their relationship had transformed them into something completely different.

I thought it was a pretty good plan, frankly, and I think most of the congregation both enjoyed and understood what I was doing.

And immediately after service, a chemical engineer came up to me and said, “You know that’s not really how it happens.” 

There have been more serious events where my not looking deeply enough into the data, or mis-reading the situation had more upsetting outcomes, of course.

We are in a constant dialogue with the Universe, and that is a lot of data to process all the time. If you’re a person who drives, your brain takes in all that you see on your drive, all that you hear, all that you experience, but your mind can’t bear the brunt of that much data, and so your mind filters out all the things that aren’t germane to the trip. Like the 85 oak trees you pass every day on your way to work, for example.

And people being people, not all of our filters are calibrated alike, so some details which are vital to one person may not get noticed by another.

When that happens, I try to make my response one of grace. Grace is the filler that I try to use between my expectations of what someone does or says, and their ability to see what I need. I practice offering grace a lot, and I hope that in return, someone offers me grace when I fall short also.

What Mies van der Rohe meant by his phrase The Devil is in the Detail, is that unless you look into all the detail, unless you’re careful about all the details, the Devil can be hidden somewhere inside your plan, and there the weakness of your plan will be.

Now, I don’t believe that van der Rohe meant the Devil, y’know the one in the red onesie with horns and a pitchfork. But in designing a skyscraper there is so much than can go wrong. If you design something poorly, or the design is executed incorrectly, then a building might not stand, and the loss of life could be tremendous.

Here is where, in the old sermon, I got lost in the details of the bedrock beneath the city of Cleveland, because I am fascinated that any city exists, frankly. When I go downtown, when I go to public square, I look up at Transit Tower and the other tall buildings and I marvel and the sheer weight of them, and though I know it’s true because I can see it’s true, I can’t actually imagine that the Earth can hold up so many buildings of such weight.

Now Sullivan, who was alive earlier than van der Rohe, said that God was in the details, and Sullivan also coined the phrase “form follows function.” Where van der Rohe’s work is stripped of ornamentation, Sullivan’s work is filled with it.

For Sullivan, the details are not a place of warning and danger, but a place where the divine can peak through.

I know that when I am overwhelmed by work, by data and to do lists, I am much more likely to oversimplify something, or overlook something. And in my work, in my life, as in your own, there can be consequences to this. People may feel like you’re not attending to their needs, they may feel like they’re unimportant to you. When I notice that this has happened, I try to repair that relationship, but of course, I’d prefer it not happen at all.

Part of the practice of mindfulness is to be present to where you are right now, in this moment. There is a balance between counting every oak tree on your way to work and missing someone’s birthday.

Our Buddhist friends speak often of what they call “Beginner’s Mind,” a state of constant learning, a way of being in the world that avoids both oversimplification and intellectual obsession by creating a third way, a way wherein the person walks through the world in wonder.

We are, each of us, constantly beginners. No matter our age, we are constantly in a new universe. Each moment has never happened before. Rather than feel overwhelmed by this, I invite you to be curious about it. I invite you to practice wonder.