We all know the world is a complex place and that one-size-fits-all rules and laws rarely work in practice. We are seeing this right now as some states move to ban all abortions, without consideration of challenging edge cases such as child rapes or the destruction of embryos during the regular course of IVF treatment. Current abortion law highlights a strange phenomena that has been building in the United States recently. Our appetite for integrative complexity in political spheres seems to be diminishing.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes, “a passage that is low in integrative complexity stakes out an opinion and relentlessly hammers it home, without nuance or qualification. Its minimal complexity can be quantified by counting words like absolutely, always, certainly, definitively, entirely, forever, indisputable, irrefutable, undoubtedly, and unquestionably.” What current political movements, like the election of Donald Trump and the passage of anti-abortion legislation demonstrates is a desire to reduce integrative complexity in political systems.
My suspicion is that this partially stems from the fact that the world is becoming more complex and hard to navigate. We are coming to rely more and more on technology as our world becomes more and more globalized. We are living in a world where the price of tea in China really could have a major impact on the cost of our mortgage and car payments here in Reno, NV. Young people today seem much more likely to be competing with people from India for future jobs, especially in tech industries. Quickly adopting technology, like virtual reality, may be essential for the future. And voting for local politicians seems to be distressingly closely tied to national political movements, another change from the past that highlights the complexity of the current world.
I think that it can be tempting for people to respond to all this globalized complexity by simplifying their views and opinions and demanding (beyond simply wishing for) simple solutions. A large segment of the population loved the fact that Donald Trump was willing to say simple things like, “immigrants are murderers,” “climate change is a Chinese hoax,” or “Democrats are bad.” Trump’s integrative complexity was astonishingly low for a president and is in line with legislation that bans all abortions outright, without compromise or negotiation for outliers.
Integrative complexity, or more precisely our lack of concern for integrative complexity on large issues, should be concerning for us. In his book Pinker also writes, “integrative complexity is related to violence. People whose language is less integratively complex, on average, are more likely to react to frustration with violence and are more likely to go to war in war games.”
This suggests that integrative complexity is a reflection of inner considerations of other people’s perspectives and self-control. The argument is that people whose language are more integratively complex are less impulsive, more willing to think through challenging situations and consider compromise alternatives, and more willing to adopt other people’s perspectives – at least temporarily. This is important in living in a complex society. We need to recognize that people have different opinions, experiences, needs, and desires. We cannot force everyone into a single box, and we cannot respond impulsively with violence against things we dislike. Current movements that embrace integrative simplicity should concern us, and we should strive to elect leaders and support national policy that adequately address issues with an adequate level of integrative complexity.