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The Appeal of Simplistic Ideas

Click here for a song called "Yellow Brick Road" by Kris Delmhorst.(It will take you to, where you can click on the play button at the top left.) A link to the album is on my recommended music list on the right.

The human brain does not handle uncertainty and helplessness very well. We all need to develop an ideological framework to make some sense of the world and to give us some course of action. You see this in particular with beliefs about politics and religion, the two areas that deal with the most fundamental questions. Because we want clear answers, there is a tendency to gravitate toward simplistic beliefs. Some of us want simple, straightforward answers about the afterlife, proper ethical behavior, and the spiritual activities that will bring blessings and aid from on high. If someone then points out problems with our religious beliefs, the tendency is to tune that person out or to convince ourselves that it all just comes down to faith anyway (which of course it ultimately does).

In politics, some of us might convince ourselves that if our political party gains power, then the world will be a significantly better place. Once Obama (or Bush) is gone, everything will be different. Some throughout history have not been content with simply displacing leaders. Instead, they believed that society needed a revolution. Then, once communism, fascism, anarchism, theocracy, capitalism, democracy, or any other kind of system is implemented, society’s problems will be solved.  Of course, history has repeatedly demonstrated that revolutions tend to not be particularly revolutionary. For some reason, the problems that preceded the change of government did not miraculously disappear when the revolution succeeded. The same has proven true when a political party is swept aside in a democratic election. As Democrats are learning now and Republicans learned previously, it is easier to be the party out of power blaming everything on the opponent than it is to be held responsible for governing. These simple truths, however, do not stop some of us from latching on to an ideology or political faction and convincing ourselves that those who oppose us are completely wrong and maybe even evil. The need for a belief system based on logic and evidence, I guess, is not the highest priority for us humans.

The problem with recognizing complexity and not accepting simple answers is that you can end up feeling paralyzed. Because you are not sure of what to do, the tendency could be to do very little. This is why simplistic answers generally win out over ideas that recognize complexity and uncertainty. An extreme and particularly evil example of humanity’s attraction to simple ideas would be the Nazi movement. As evil and twisted as Hitler was, you cannot deny that he provided his followers with clear answers. To improve Germany’s situation, the government needed to invest in public works and the military, take revenge on those who defeated and humiliated Germany in World War I, and exploit or eradicate “inferior” races and peoples. The Nazis definitely had a simple, clear program, and his followers did not feel paralyzed by indecision. They were empowered by knowing what tangible actions needed to be taken.

At the moment, we don’t have a lot of Nazis in the United States. (I have heard, however, that white supremacist groups have revived as a result, to a large degree, of President Obama’s election). In recent years, however, we have often demonstrated this natural human tendency toward extreme partisanship and simplistic responses to complex issues. Two of the most complicated and hotly debated issues of our time are health care reform and climate change. As I have struggled to wrap my brain around these issues, I am amazed and frustrated by the ability of some people to so easily and happily accept a simplistic argument or point of view. Those who oppose health care reform often say that they don’t want “socialized medicine,” health care benefits going to illegal immigrants, or grandma being sentenced to die by a so-called “death panel.” Some supporters of health care reform might say that they simply want health care for all without bothering with the details of how to carry this out. How many of the people who have strong opinions about this issue can make specific references to the actual plan being proposed? In a recent “Newsweek” report (March 1, 2010, pg. 29) a poll was taken in which only 37% of those surveyed said that they supported Obama’s health care plan. But in the same poll, people were asked about specific measures in the plan without being told that they were Obama’s proposals. On these questions, between 73-81% of those surveyed said that they supported these specific measures. So they largely support the measures in the plan but oppose the plan itself. Apparently, knowing very little about the details of the plan has not stopped many from having a general opinion about it. A strong opinion, after all, gives someone a sense that there is something important he or she can do. But where are these opinions coming from?

A week or two ago, I heard a report on “NPR” about people’s opinions on climate change. The basic thesis was that opinions on this issue had little or nothing to do with scientific evidence. Instead, you could easily predict someone’s view on climate change by asking questions about their general political ideology. If a person distrusted government regulation and saw economic development as a high priority, he or she would believe that global warming was a myth. A person who distrusted corporations and was more favorable toward government regulation would believe that global warming was for real. People’s opinions on this scientific question had little to do with their (limited) knowledge of climate science. In a perfect world, beliefs would derive from evidence. In the real world, beliefs often dictate the evidence that we humans choose to see. We tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and filter out the rest.

Of course, in the real world, decisions have to be made. If leaders (and voters) analyze everything to death, they can be paralyzed by indecision. Ultimately, we all have to take the leap of faith that seems the most logical. Leaders who truly wrestle with problems, however, will have the ability to adapt when decisions do not work out as planned. Too often, we seem to have leaders who “stay the course” in the name of ideological purity. Change is viewed as a sign of weakness. In my mind, a willingness to adapt and the recognition of one’s limitations should be viewed as a sign of strength. It can also lead to the political compromises that are the key to making democracy work. Unfortunately, for many Americans, compromise, like a capacity for change, is a sign of weakness. After all, you can’t work with an enemy that is always wrong and may possibly even be evil.


  1. Unfortunately, representatives are supposed to represent our interests because they're the ones who are supposed to sift through the complexity that we don't have time (and sometimes, the understanding) to figure out. But many cater to our fears and find a simplistic sound bite or skew the facts to favor one party over the other. It's disheartening.

    As usual, this is a well thought out, well written piece.

  2. As usual Theresa, thanks for the thoughtful feedback.

  3. Thank you for simplifying the emotions that come with helplessness. "The human brain does not handle uncertainty and helplessness very well." The next time I feel powerless over something I'll be sure to note that my brain isn't handling this helplessness well. And move on.

  4. I love your take on strength, and perceived strength. It reminded me of the song "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

    Perceived strength is the feature President Bill Clinton alluded to in 2002. America had been attacked and the democrats had to come up with a candidate that could beat President Bush:

    "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is *strong and wrong* than someone who's weak and right," Clinton said and repeated because he said it was important.

  5. I can't figure out if that "YouTube" video is criticizing the guy for being an idiot or glorifying him. There's a song called called "Stick With the Plan" by Graham Parker that's sort of a political version of the same idea. (By the way, does the anonymous video poster have the initials C.M. ?)

    The second anonymous poster nailed the point I was trying to make. I was not trying to accuse most people of being ignorant. (Well, maybe a little.) I was mostly trying to describe inclinations that we all have to resist uncertainty and helplessness.

  6. My initials *are* c.m. Way to go! considering the 1/26^2 probability you had by choosing randomly.

    You are not the only moonlighting detective. Last week my dentist guessed I had braces and drank tea.

    I feel so transparent.

    Best wishes to your family.


  7. C.M. , it was the country video that gave you away. I'll keep the secret of your identity intact.

  8. 100% agreed... & Thanx for commenting on my blog about various "isms" in the society.

  9. Good insight and intersting observations.


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