Simplicity bias

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Simplicity bias is a cognitive bias towards holding views which can be explained by a simple narrative, as opposed to views which take more complex details into account and are generally more accurate, realistic, and balanced.

It seems likely that this bias is primarily caused by limitations of individual memory: it is much easier to remember details that fit neatly into a unidirectional conclusion.

Simplicity bias has not been formally studied and so far has only been observed anecdotally; it is as yet an untested hypothesis -- but it is quite similar to the better-known confirmation bias, which causes one to ignore evidence that doesn't support one's existing beliefs. It differs in that it seems to take effect during the phase of reaching a conclusion (where simplicity bias causes a preference for the simpler/simplest explanation) rather than after having done so (where confirmation bias causes a preference for information that reinforces the conclusion already chosen).


Simplicity bias is one of the largest causes of partisanship: having been exposed to the facts supporting one side of a dispute, it becomes much more difficult to remember facts which do not support that side. Individuals thus tend to favor the "side" to which they were first exposed, regardless of new evidence.



One method of overcoming this bias, for any given subject, is as follows:

  • Write down a summary of every known significant fact about the subject.
  • In a separate designated area, write down any conclusions that seem to follow from these facts.
  • As new information is encountered, add these facts to the collection regardless of whether they appear to support the current conclusions.
  • If new information does seem to counter any existing conclusions, review the entire body of fact-summaries and make any necessary changes to the conclusions written.
    • If possible, keep a log of the changes made to these conclusions so that this can be tracked over time; if you are keeping your records on a wiki, this is generally automatic.
  • When making decisions on the subject, always consult your written conclusions (in case you remembered them wrong), and always be prepared to add new information if it is encountered in the course of further discussion.

This overcomes the unavailability of adequate storage capability in most people's minds, and allows every important detail to be accounted for. It also greatly facilitates sharing of evidence, which is vital for rational discussion and improves the detectability of one's own rationality.


It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

Albert Einstein (Wikiquote)
often paraphrased as "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no[t] simpler."
e.g. Influence, Robert Cialdini, quote for Chapter 1

The propensity to excessive simplification is indeed natural to the mind of man, since it is only by abstraction and generalisation, which necessarily imply the neglect of a multitude of particulars, that he can stretch his puny faculties so as to embrace a minute portion of the illimitable vastness of the universe.

But if the propensity is natural and even inevitable, it is nevertheless fraught with peril, since it is apt to narrow and falsify our conception of any subject under investigation.

To correct it partially – for to correct it wholly would require an infinite intelligence – we must endeavour to broaden our views by taking account of a wide range of facts and possibilities; and when we have done so to the utmost of our power, we must still remember that from the very nature of things our ideas fall immeasurably short of the reality.

James George Frazer (Wikipedia)
The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, Vol 1. The Golden Bough, Part 1 [1] via


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