How can you tell if the answer to a problem you’ve been puzzling over is correct? How do you know if you're missing something big? Or if someone else’s proposed solution is likely to work? A 14th century friar offers a way to focus on the information that really matters.
When I was about five years old, I told a lie. Yes, shocking, I know.
My parents went out for the evening, leaving my older brother to babysit. An antiquated TV sat in my parents’ bedroom, with a flimsy metal antenna attached at the top. I snuck into their bedroom. Stealthily I turned on the TV, only to find that the reception was terrible.
So I tried moving the antenna around. Except that this was a stationary antenna. My five-year-old self wasn’t fazed by its rigidity – until of course I heard the snap and found myself holding an antenna no longer attached to the TV.
What to do? My five-year-old self devised the perfect solution. I took some modeling clay, placed it on top of the TV where the antenna had previously been, and stuck the antenna deep into the clay while molding the clay around it to hold it in place. It would separate if you moved it. But as I had learned the hard way, you weren’t supposed to move it.
I was quite proud of my ingenuity. Almost as proud as I was surprised when my parents came home, and after trying to get their TV to work, called me in and asked what I did to the antenna.
How did they know it was me? And why didn’t they accept my five-year-old explanation that someone must have broken into the apartment, broken the antenna and then put it back with clay to cover their tracks?
Occam’s Razor – Your Guide to Finding Solutions That Work
My parents likely didn’t consciously use Occam’s Razor to conclude that it really was me and not an intruder who patched the broken antenna with clay. Nevertheless, they were relying on this famous principle laid out by William Occam, a 14th Century British logician and Franciscan friar.
The principle known as Occam’s Razor essentially states that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” and so the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest assumptions or steps, is often the explanation that is true.
Occam’s razor has been used to improve philosophy, theology, scientific inquiry and many other fields. The search for the simplest explanation often leads to the best or most correct one.
In the case of the TV antenna, determining that I did it was the simplest explanation. It was known that I was already in the apartment, liked to watch TV, had modeling clay in my room, and the “solution” of using clay to fix an antenna was consistent with the thinking of a five-year-old.
On the other hand, to arrive at the conclusion that an intruder did it would have required my parents to assume that:
1) an intruder broke into the apartment while my brother and I were both there;
2) the intruder didn’t take anything, but instead went straight to my parents' bedroom to turn on the TV;
3) the intruder stayed a while (even though he was an intruder and not an invited guest) with the hope of watching TV;
4) the intruder decided he needed to fix the antenna when it broke rather than simply leave;
5) the intruder, who likely would have been an adult, decided that re-attaching the antenna with modeling clay was the best solution;
6) the intruder just happened to have modeling clay with him, or else knew to go into my room to get some;
7) the intruder took the time to re-attach the antenna with clay; and
8) the intruder left the apartment without doing anything else or taking anything once he had re-attached the antenna.
Although the intruder explanation is not impossible (and surely, even stranger things have happened on our fair planet), it is unlikely. And it’s especially unlikely when compared to the much simpler explanation that my five-year-old self did it.
When it comes to a five-year-old fixing a broken TV antenna with modeling clay, this seems pretty obvious. But in the rough and tumble of our everyday adult lives, it’s often not so obvious to us that we've gotten caught in the complexity trap.
We all know people (or we’ve done this ourselves) who come up with extremely complex theories as to why their investment strategy will work. Because of the complexity, it sounds convincing – that is, until their stocks take a nosedive. Meanwhile, the investors who score the biggest wins are typically those with clear and simple investment strategies (think Warren Buffet).
I previously wrote about Solomon Snyder’s discussion of the “audacity principle” in science. Snyder looked at the qualities that separate the very best scientists from the merely good ones. One of the most important differentiating factors is that the greatest scientists seek out simplicity, looking for unifying solutions within vast amounts of data. The merely good scientists are more likely to get bogged down and sidetracked by the mass of data.
How to Use Occam’s Razor to Focus on the Right Things
The principle behind Occam’s Razor can be applied to virtually anything. Whenever you are trying to determine why something happened, stop and ask yourself which is the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest assumptions.
If you are deciding between two options, which option can you implement using the fewest steps? If someone offers you a business proposition, or an investment strategy, or anything else that requires you to expend money or time, be on the lookout for whether it is needlessly complicated. The real money-winning strategies most often are the simple ones, while the strategies with all the twists and turns are usually too good to be true.
You also can apply Occam’s Razor to your daily tasks. When I first practiced law, the senior partner would return my draft motions marked up in red pen. He would point to a sentence, now full of red squiggles, and exclaim, “Why use five words here when you can say the same thing with three?" Then he would walk away, muttering something about Occam's Razor. (That’s what happens when you work for an English teacher turned lawyer.)
We’ve all read sentences that go on and on, using words that send you running to the dictionary. Those sentences never have the impact, or the clarity, of a short sentence that gets right to the point. The Coca-Cola ad with a compelling visual and a few carefully chosen words (like “The Real Thing”) will always get your attention far more than lengthy paragraphs explaining why Coke is the real thing.
Before you begin any task, ask yourself what is the simplest way to complete it, using the fewest steps. You’ll almost always wind up with a better result.
A final word – don’t use Occam’s Razor mindlessly. Complexity has its place too. And while simple is good, simplistic is not. Simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones, all things being equal. So look for the simple solution first, with the goal of avoiding unnecessary steps or assumptions. But be careful not to go too far and shave away the indispensable along with the unnecessary.