Mistaking Complexity for Understanding


Let’s start with some science: The athlete’s aerobic glycolysis occurs via mitochondrial biogenesis delivered via ATP phosphorylation…

Wait, before you stop reading, what does that mean? Nothing. I threw together some exercise science jargon. Every field has its own jargon, technical terms, or abbreviations that mean something to those who reside in that field, but little to anyone outside of it. And in many cases, some jargon is needed, like in technical journals. But, we’ve all been to the presentation meant for a lay audience where the speaker starts throwing out all sorts of complex-sounding words that no one understands. Or perhaps we have the friend who intentionally uses big words in casual conversation. Why do they do that? Why can’t they keep it simple?

We often mistake complexity with knowledge. When researchers added neuroscience terms to a text, people were more satisfied with the explanation, even when it didn’t make sense. Other studies show that when deciding whether to invest in a company, the use of jargon influences the decision. When investors have some knowledge in the area, but not expertise, then utilizing jargon in your pitch is helpful in getting them to invest.

A recent study found that individuals also use jargon when they lack perceived status. They are compensating. When we aren’t secure in our knowledge or understanding, we tend to complexify. We turn into a salesperson, trying to convince those on the receiving end of our conversation that we actually know what we’re talking about. We’re concerned that our lack of knowledge will be exposed. In the aforementioned study, these individuals were more concerned with how the audience was evaluating them, rather than the content or clarity of their message.

Jargon often comes from insecurity. And like most things when we feel insecure, we overcompensate. Flooding our speech with technical mumbo jumbo, as if to say: “See! I get it. I’m part of the club.”

On the other hand, those who are secure in what they know focus on clarity. They could care less about how the audience is evaluating them. They know what they know so the mission shifts from defending their status to how do I get this message across to the individuals or group I’m communicating with.

Feeling secure in your knowledge and work doesn’t mean thinking that you know everything. It’s being comfortable in what you know, and in what you don’t. As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”


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