Procrustean Problem-Solving Bias

Procrustean Problem-Solving Bias

We often deal with complex problems by simply cutting off some elements of a problem so as to conveniently reduce its complexity. This tendency could be called the Procrustean problem-solving bias.

In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a bandit who forced people to fit his arbitrary-sized bed by either stretching them if they were too short or cutting off their legs if they were too tall. In problem solving, the Procrustean bias manifests itself in the cutting part: cutting down the elements of a complex problem to fit it, for example, into our limited working memory.

Procrustean Problem-solving bias

How Tools For Representing the Problem Impair the Problem Solving: The Law of Small Displays

The Procrustean problem solving bias is also reflected in the law of small displays, which states that we oversimplify complex problems merely because we rely on small computer or tablet screens, 8×11 inch or other small size paper, and other small display media. In essence, we face a complex problem but our tools for representing that problem are small and don’t allow representing the problem in its full complexity, so we cut down various elements of the problem to make it fit onto our small display media.

Ideally, complex problems should be tackled with tools that allow for greater scale of problem representation, so a basic practical remedy would be to use larger display media. As a rule, digital tools are usually inferior to analog tools for this reason.

Unfortunately, in nearly every boardroom and classroom, even the usual analog tools for representing problems and making decisions are standard-sized, thus presuming that all problems will be of certain maximum complexity, and so forcing us into the Procrustean bias.

John Warfield, who coined the term “law of small displays,” pointed out that since universities often set a standard for society to follow, they could change this practice by doing away with the universality of standard-sized chalkboard:

Even the university has established a standard size of chalk board, as though no matter what is being taught can be represented within that scale. This assumption goes hand in hand with another; which is that linear, sequential presentations are the only kind that will ever be used in representing subject matter. The fact that the latter belief is readily contradictable seems irrelevant to university administrations. Why choose the university as a focal organization? Because it is this institution that blesses the practice by carrying it out repeatedly, day after day, to all of its clientele; thereby setting a standard for society to follow. It is, therefore, the same institution that could change the practice, simply by acknowledging it and creating an infrastructure to deny its universality.[1]


[1] John N. Warfield, “Twenty Laws of Complexity: Science Applicable in Organizations,” Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 16, 3-40 (1999) p. 39.

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