Occam’s Razor is a decision making principle which states that when you have multiple explanations for a situation or an event, the simplest one is most likely to be true.
You open the internet banking of your savings account and you notice a lesser balance than you anticipated. Before you check what has gone wrong, several thoughts run through your mind, such as:
- Oh my, was my account hacked?
- Did my roommate use my card without informing me?
- Someone from Turkey must have executed an unauthorized transaction
- The software that I have subscribed for has overcharged me
- I have spent more money in the last two weeks than I had expected
When you check your bank statement, you discover that the last option, the simplest possible explanation, was true. You speculated on extreme scenarios, but none of those caused the event.
Occam’s Razor recommends looking at the simplest explanation first before using bizarre possibilities to jump to conclusions.
In this article, we will discuss what Occam’s Razor is, the areas it applies to, real-life examples, and pitfalls to be wary of.
- What is the Occam’s Razor?
- Why doesn’t the brain apply Occam’s Razor naturally?
- Examples of the Occam’s Razor:
- Arguments and controversies against Occam’s Razor:
What is the Occam’s Razor?
Occam’s Razor is a method of reasoning which states that the simplest explanation or solution is usually the best one.
Different people cite it in different ways, but the essence of the message remains the same. Here are the other definitions of Occam’s Razor:
- Don’t make more assumptions than you absolutely need
- When there are many hypotheses, the simplest one must be considered first
- It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer
Occam’s razor is a mental model attributed to William of Ockham from the 14th century. He frequently used it in various areas such as relationships, causal events, explanation of ideas, philosophy, and others. The principle also goes by the names of Ockham’s Razor and the law of parsimony.
But, the principle dates centuries back in time, where other philosophers have brought up similar principles. Aristotle and Ptolemy have recommended sticking to simplicity to explain a cause. So, the actual origin of the Occam’s Razor remains unknown.
Are you wondering why the principle is called a razor? That’s because “razor” is a common term in philosophy used to describe tools and methods to eliminate(or shave off) unlikely explanations and actions. Other razors include Hanlon’s Razor, Hitchen’s Razor, Alder’s Razor, etc.
Why doesn’t the brain apply Occam’s Razor naturally?
“Isn’t it natural for the brain to accept the simplest explanation? Why would it complicate things unnecessarily?”, you wonder. Fair point.
But, the human brain tends to consider extreme possibilities first. That’s because, the more unusual the explanation, the stronger the emotion it evokes. Simpler explanations don’t induce any excitement or fear, so the brain quickly skips over them.
That doesn’t mean you fail to consider the easier options, rather your mind prefers to jump right ahead.
Let’s take a couple of examples:
When the market crashes and a few people lose their jobs, your insecurity shoots up. “What if I’m fired? How will I manage my EMIs? What will happen to my spouse and kid?” For minor market changes, the chances of you losing your job are slim. Yet, you consider extreme possibilities which invoke fear. Your brain doesn’t linger upon the straightforward possibility of business running as usual.
But, the failure to consider simpler explanations isn’t limited to simpler explanations alone. Here’s an example that illustrates how the human mind undergoes a similar thought process with positive emotions.
When an entrepreneur launches a startup, he thinks of all the possibilities of becoming a billion-dollar business, getting into the front page of the TIME manazine, and sailing on a yacht on the coast of the Atlantic. The excitement that drives him to look at such extreme success. But, in reality, 9 out of 10 startups fail within the first 5 years.
The point here isn’t that you should be pessimistic, but to understand that your brain leans towards remote unlikely possibilities instead of the more likely outcomes/explanations.
Examples of the Occam’s Razor:
Occam’s razor applies in various fields due to the generic guideline it provides. Let’s go through a few examples:
1. At work
You’re having a busy Monday and you want a coworker’s assistance on a task. So, you send out an email to him and you don’t hear a response. With every passing hour, your mind makes up different reasons to explain the lack of response such as:
- He’s ignoring me on purpose
- He was offended by what I said in the last meeting
- He wants the promotion, so he trying to pull me down
The more likely explanation is that your coworker missed the email or forgot to respond.
2. In medicine
Doctors receive explicit training to treat patients on the most likely symptoms to avoid wrong diagnosis and overtreatment. For example, if you visit a doctor with fever and weakness today, you should be tested for Covid-19 before checking for any rare diseases. Likewise, a young person with chest pain is more likely to have acid reflux than a heart attack. New doctors are advised to go by the saying, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”
3. In startups
When a business isn’t growing as expected, entrepreneurs tend to find different explanations for failure such as:
- The market timing is incorrect. Our product is ahead of its time
- Our competitors are playing the dirty game to throw us out of business
- Our users don’t explore the product enough to realize the value it offers
Such explanations push the problem onto an external entity. But, the real reasons for the failure of the business are probably poor customer support or that the idea isn’t solving a real problem in the first place.
Finding unlikely explanations is the secret human mentality of avoiding accountability for failure.
4. In science
Occam’s Razor is intentionally used in different fields of science. Though the principle follows the same premise, people in science define it as “When multiple theories make the same prediction, the simpler one is better.”
Einstein used Occam’s Razor in the theory of relativity, Pierre and Euler used it in the principle of least action, and Max Planck used it to explain quantum mechanics.
Chemistry, mathematics, and biology have found ways to apply Occam’s Razor too.
Science applies the principle frequently because sophisticated hypotheses require a larger investment of time, effort, and money to prove or disprove. Therefore, starting with the simplest explanation helps save resources and costs.
5. In real life
If you observe closely, you’ll find different examples in your daily life where your mind leans towards unusual explanations instead of the simplest choice.
- You arrive home to find garbage strewn all over. Was it a thief or your dog?
- You have had a bad headache for a week. You search your symptoms on Google and you notice various articles that indicate a possible brain tumor. Do you have a serious ailment or a simpler condition?
- Your teen son who has gone out with friends had mentioned that he’d call you by 10 PM. It’s already 11:30 PM and you haven’t heard anything. Has your son been kidnapped or is he having fun with his friends?
Arguments and controversies against Occam’s Razor:
1. Not a reason for reckless decision making
It appears as if Occam’s Razor suggests people pick the simplest explanation among a set of choices. But, the principle recommends picking the most straightforward option only when it has objective proof. Another scenario to apply Occam’s Razor is when two theories are equally possible, but require different efforts to test.
But, if you pick the simplest choice always, you’re oversimplifying the principle itself.
Take an example where a doctor meets a patient with symptoms of sneezing and cough. Without any further analysis, if the doctor concludes that the patient is suffering from a common cold, he might miss a more serious condition. The doctor must allow the patient to explain all his symptoms, their duration and probe further using his expertise to assess if a different scenario is possible.
Applying Occam’s Razor to make a decision is not the same as jumping to a conclusion without gathering the necessary objective proof.
2. The simplest option isn’t always true
Often, you’ll stumble upon a case where the most baffling explanation comes true thereby invalidating the Occam’s Razor. And that’s expected because the Occam’s Razor doesn’t work every single time. You will notice that Occam’s Razor fails for some of the major innovations and success stories.
For example, until a few centuries ago, humankind believed that the earth was at the center of the universe and the other planetary bodies rotated around us. If you use Occam’s Razor, that explanation makes the most sense because we don’t feel the ground moving, and the sun appears like a tiny sphere that moves from east to west in the sky. But, the reality was a complicated explanation given the scientific knowledge at that time.
Similarly, criminals have got away with crimes because the most simple explanation pointed towards a different cause. People have stagnated in their careers by sticking to their comfort zone and picking the easiest choice. When Neil Armstrong and the team landed on the moon, Occam’s Razor would consider the event fake because the technology of that time didn’t seem advanced enough.
The Occam’s Razor states that a simpler explanation has a higher chance of being right, but it isn’t always right.
3. Anti razors
Some consider Occam’s Razor as a behavioral naivety. Such arguments are brought up against other philosophical razors too. Any principle which refutes a razor is called an anti-razor.
Different people have challenged Occam’s Razor saying that it encourages oversimplification. Some arguments against this principle state:
- If three aren’t enough to verify an alternative proposition, a 4th one must be added
- The variety of beings should not rashly be diminished
- It is vain to do with fewer what requires more
All arguments against Occam’s Razor either suggest finding more evidence or taking into account the complexity of various events before opting for the simplest explanation.
These pointers have their merit when you look at specific scenarios where simplification may not be the best first choice.
4. The Occam’s Razor depends on your explanatory style
When a positive or negative event occurs, each person looks at it in a different light.
For example, when two people fail the same test, one can consider it as a lack of preparation while the other might look at it as a lack of talent. In the book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman goes into the subject of optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles in depth.
So, when an event occurs, the reason a person cites varies on his/her personality. If you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you’re more likely to consider negative events permanent and blame yourself for them. Whereas, if you possess an optimistic explanatory style, you’re more likely to consider negative incidents temporary and caused due to external factors.
Depending on the explanatory style, the application(or the lack of it) of the Occam’s Razor occurs more naturally to some than others.
Occam’s Razor is a potent decision-making tool when you use it to avoid overthinking. But if you consider it as a blueprint for perfect decisions and apply it in every single scenario, you’re oversimplifying the complexities of the world.
The ability to identify when you must shorten the time taken to make a decision and when you must dig deeper is an art in itself.
So, simplify your decision-making process, but only when the situation suits it. For other circumstances, put your thinking hat on.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.