Gaza protest Amsterdam by Jos van Zetten (CC BY 2.0)

Talking Too Complex Will Destroy Communication

Forrest Christian Decision-making 3 Comments

Did you ever think that by really pounding a logical point home you are destroying your success as a communicator?

You get into an argument with a relative at a wedding dinner, say. He’s arguing some asinine point that’s clearly in violation of any semblance of reality. You provide key proofs. He fights back. You esalate your logic with more complex and detailed arguments. After awhile he closes down, gets very angry and says, “Well, you might be full of these elitist ideas but I know what I know.”

You finally get into visit a lead that you really, really want to sell into because it would pay for your mortgage. Completely. To make sure they get the point, you add even more to your presentation, making it more complex and deeper. Their eyes glaze over. Afterwards, they award the contract to a competitor who not only didn’t have as good a presentation, their product is clearly inferior according to everyone in the market.

What went wrong? Or, in popular parlance, “if you’re so smart how come no one listens to you?”

Here’s why. And this is important.

It turns out that if you give people more than they can handle, cognitively, they don’t just process what they can. When overwhelmed, our brains essentially shut down.

Here’s a personal example.

For about six months, I worked with Warren Kinston on commercializing his Taxonomy of the Human Element in Endeavour. I recall meeting at his place in Switzerland. It wasn’t just the long flight and hours of train travel to get there. I could feel my brain simply fall over after awhile. He could keep on going but I was essentially just hoping to put things into long-term memory and sort it all out later because I was not going to be doing any more processing at that point. He had simply overloaded my ability to handle complexity cognitively.

Here’s some support.

While reading a recent-ish article on the current state of Intelligence research (general mental ability and not spy-vs-spy), I stumbled on this:

Subsequent fMRI studies have confirmed that high-[mental-]ability individuals are more efficient problem solvers at the neural level and that, as task difficulty increases, high-ability individuals exhibit increasing neural activity in [the pre-frontal cortex of the brain], whereas lower ability individuals exhibit decreasing activity.[1]

You may have missed the important part: when we get tasks that that overwhelm our mental abilities, the action in the pre-frontal cortex goes down not up. That’s huge for our understanding of what goes on!

The Cognitive Manager model in the Integrative Complexity field (talking about one’s cognitive complexity) has a similar idea. University of British Columbia professor Peter Suedfeld summarized it in a 2010 report for the Canadian Armed Forces:

The cognitive manager model (Suedfeld, 1992) proposes that [Integrative Complexity (IC)] changes under stress follow a curvilinear pattern: when a problem first arises that cannot be solved in a simple way, IC rises as the individual increases information search and processing to deal with it. Eventually, an asymptote is reached; but if the problem becomes too severe and as the solver exhausts his or her cognitive resources, IC drops (“disruptive stress”) and a simple strategy is sought to escape the continued demands. In international crises, for example, that simple strategy may be to attack the opponent.

When you get overwhelmed, you don’t just reduce the problem to something you can handle. You simply shut down. The cognitive manager model predicted a reduction to simplistic, yes-no, good-bad dichotomies. In Elliott Jaques / Requisite Organization speak about cognitive complexity, if you put a Stratum 3 person into a Stratum 4 job they won’t just do what they can and deliver Stratum 3 work. They will get overwhelmed and their cognitive complexity will collapse. They will deliver no value whatsoever.

The same happens with your communication with people. You deliver too much.

And in case you think that this is simply a bunch of sissy researchers, National [American] Football League’s all-time greatest player, Jerry Rice, said something similar about training. He pointed out that 4 hours is about all that you can really train. It wasn’t his body that gave out, he said, it was his mind. Learning is cognitively expensive and if you are training right to improve performance, you just can’t do it for very long.

And I’m preaching to myself here. I give y’all way too much information all too often and it ruins my ability to communicate successfully. Less is more.

Now think of the opportunities that you have to use this overwhelming to your advantage! How can you push people over the edge so that they will make stupid decisions that will benefit you?

Footnote 1 Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2012). “Intelligence: new findings and theoretical developments”. The American psychologist, 67(2):130–59, pp. 143. They are citing two pieces of research:

  1. Callicott, J. H., Mattay, V. S., Bertolino, A., Finn, K., Coppola, R., & Frank, J. A. (1999). “Physiological characteristics of capacity constraints in working memory as revealed by functional MRI”. Cerebral Cortex, 9(1):20–26. doi:10.1093/cercor/9.1.20
  2. Rypma, B., Berger, J. S., Prabhakaran, V., Bly, B. M., Kimberg, D. Y., & Biswal, B. B. (2006). “Neural correlates of cognitive efficiency”. Neuro-Image, 33(3), 969–979. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.05.065

Footnote 2 Suedfeld, Peter. (2010). The Complexity Construct in Political Psychology: Personological and Cognitive Approaches (CR 2010-22). Toronto: Defence R&D Canada, pp. 8. He is citing his earlier work, Suedfeld, P. (1992). “Cognitive managers and their critics”. Political Psychology, 13, 435-454.

Image credit: Gaza protest Amsterdam. © 2009 Jos van Zetten (CC BY 2.0)

Comments 3

  1. Post

    I’ll add that Owen Jacobs has shown me an earlier graph of the Integrative Complexity collapse. He’d had Streufert and Suedfeld do some work for the U.S. Army Research Institute back in the 80s. Great stuff.

  2. I get overwhelmed to the point of shutdown every time I look at Warren Kinston’s website.

    Patrick Henry Winston, professor of Artificial Intelligence at MIT, gives an annual lecture on giving lectures. He emphasizes that your message should build incrementally on what your audience already knows and should be framed in terms familiar to them.

    Kinston and many of the RO authors I’ve read (thinking here about the anthology you edited) demand that you assimilate a vast and complex vocabulary before you can get any value out of their writings. By contrast, Forrest, you do a fine job of presenting RO ideas in terms outsiders can appreciate, although the framework you present probably connects better with hidden high-potentials than with the execs who need to find them and hire hidden high-potentials.

  3. Post

    What a great compliment!

    There’s a place for technical jargon in any profession–technical journals would be huge otherwise–but the basics of this theory can be understood by anyone:

    – Who is your Real Boss? Not your manager, but the person you look to for context for your work?

    – Some basics about timespans of discretion

    To their defense, they came to Requisite Organization / Stratified Systems Theory and had to leave behind everything that they once knew. It felt to them like a religious conversion, but more like Paul on the road to Damascus rather than C.S. Lewis in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle.

    It helps to never have met Jaques and to not have started in any “community of practice”. Having Tim Keller’s theory of sermonizing to New Yorkers probably helped, too: explain things so that a reasonably educated person can at least understand the broad strokes of what is going on.

    I also have very intelligent readers who can understand things when you explain them, and that is surely helpful.

    Warren’s stuff is like drinking from the firehose. Just pay attention to whatever resonates rather than trying to understand everything. He knows that he needs people to create things lower down the abstraction chain so he can continue at the level he’s at. He’s already down at least one level, obtw. You should try wrapping your head around the taxonomic structure that he’s put together from an OWL point of view!

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