Unnecessary Complexity: The Rube Goldbergs of the Personality Types

If you’ve ever made a Rube Goldberg machine, perhaps for a school project or for fun, you’ll know just what it is: a deliberate, delightful glorification of unnecessary complexity.

Rube Goldberg machines are intentionally designed to accomplish very simple tasks in the most complicated way possible. They’re named after the American engineer-turned-cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who became famous in the early 20th century for his cartoons depicting wacky contraptions doing simple chores, like cleaning your chin with a self-operating napkin. One action sets off an intricate chain reaction where mechanisms like levers, inclined planes, and pulleys keep the machine in motion until it has carried out its designated task.

Even if you didn’t know what it was called, you’ve probably seen a Rube Goldberg machine in action before – such as the contraption that cooks (or attempts to cook) Doc Brown’s breakfast in the opening scene of the movie Back to the Future. (For an excellent example, check out OK Go’s music video for “This Too Shall Pass,” which for nearly four minutes shows the progress of an epic Rube Goldberg machine that “dances” along with the song and ultimately blasts the band members with paint.)

Some people may be more impressed than others with such displays. Many of us may marvel at the ingenuity of a Rube Goldberg machine yet at the same time wonder simply, “Why?”

As creative and whimsical as Rube Goldberg machines can be, unnecessary complexity in real life is usually not so fun. It can cost us valuable time, wear on our patience, and test our relationships. For those who look for the simplest, most elegant solutions to a problem, the strange contortions that some go through to find an answer can appear quite odd or frustrating.

To explore the role that personality type may play in this, we asked our readers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Other people often describe your ways of solving problems as unnecessarily complex.” Although a minority (38%) agreed overall, the results revealed significant disparities between every personality trait pairing, most notably between the Intuitive and Observant traits (46% vs. 27%) and the Turbulent and Assertive traits (46% vs. 27%).

Which personality types are more likely to be perceived as the Rube Goldbergs among us? Let’s find out.

Roles

Analysts (52% agreeing)

Problem-solving is one of Analysts’ favorite things to do, and as Thinking, Intuitive personalities, they are dedicated to finding solutions that are both logical and innovative. But their tendency to get wrapped up in their own intellectual processes and imaginative explorations can sometimes cause them to get carried away and overcomplicate things.

Furthermore, their independent streak can convince Analysts that their way is the best way, and as long as a solution works for them, they needn’t worry about making it easy for others who can’t keep up to understand. It’s not hard to see why Analysts agreed the most, as many people do view their approach as unnecessarily complex, even if they acknowledge Analysts’ talent for discovery and innovation.

Logicians (INTP) (60%) agreed with our statement more than any other personality type and, along with Architects (INTJ) (55%) and Mediators (INFP) (51%), were one of only three personalities who agreed in the majority.

To outsiders, Logicians’ minds may seem very much like a Rube Goldberg machine. After all, Logicians’ wheels never stop turning, and they pride themselves on their ability to come up with unique, inventive, and often truly brilliant solutions. Although their thought processes are perfectly logical to them, Logicians run into trouble because they are often unable or unwilling to slow down and fully explain their ideas to others, making them seem obscure and overly complicated. It doesn’t help that Logicians tend to second-guess themselves, worrying that they’ve missed some piece of the puzzle and adding layers of complexity each time they reassess their own theories and ideas.

Diplomats (43%)

Diplomats, like Analysts, are Intuitive personalities who can become somewhat detached from reality in their pursuit of a creative answer to a problem. But because of their Feeling trait, Diplomats are more likely than Analysts to involve others in the problem-solving process. If they sense that others are feeling confused or frustrated, they’ll try to work to get everyone on the same page before moving forward. This openness to collaboration and cooperation can soften the impression that Diplomats are unnecessarily complex or impractical problem-solvers, even if others in the group see simpler solutions.

Explorers (31%)

As Observant personalities, Explorers take a drastically different approach to problem-solving than their Intuitive counterparts, one that is more grounded and focused on the immediate needs of a given situation. These pragmatic personalities look for pragmatic solutions, and most pride themselves on coming up with easy answers to hard problems rather than the other way around.

The quick-thinking adaptability of their Prospecting trait makes Explorers great in emergencies, but problems that require long-term solutions may present more of a challenge. An unnecessarily complex solution from an Explorer may be a sign that the problem hasn’t been thoroughly thought out, something that more patient personalities might pick up on.

Sentinels (25%)

The combination of Observant and Judging personality traits means that clear-eyed Sentinels excel in the areas of organizing, planning, and finding efficient, effective solutions. The simplicity of Sentinels’ solutions is by no means an indicator of simplistic thinking – Sentinels are more than capable of tackling highly complex problems. Rather, it stems from their belief that any solution they reach or process they develop must be straightforward and easy to replicate, so as to be of use to as many people as possible. For them, an unwieldy solution is no solution at all, because their priority is in bettering practices for everyone, not just themselves.

Of all the personality types, Consuls (ESFJ) (19%) were the least likely to agree with our statement. Consuls are caring, trustworthy people who enjoy helping others. They like to take others’ needs into consideration and get consensus when faced with problems. They also tend to get uncomfortable thinking too far outside the box, preferring instead simpler, more conventional answers. But even complex solutions don’t seem so complicated when Consuls present them with their usual warmth and supportiveness.

Strategies

Constant Improvement (48% agreeing)

Among the Strategies, Constant Improvers were the most likely to agree that others often describe their ways of solving problems as unnecessarily complex. As Turbulent personalities, Constant Improvers work very hard to make sure their work is the best it can be, but as Introverts, they are reluctant to share their ideas with others until they’ve perfected them. Developing solutions in isolation, without the input of others to guide them when things are getting too complicated, may actually hurt their performance in the long run.

As sensitive as these personalities are, it may not take much negative feedback for Constant Improvers to take to heart the idea that their problem-solving is overly complex, leading them to agree with our statement at higher rates.

Social Engagement (43%)

Like Constant Improvers, Social Engagers are Turbulent personalities who are prone to perfectionism and oversensitivity to criticism. Feeling less confident in their abilities, it’s easier for them to see themselves as unnecessarily complex problem-solvers. But Social Engagers’ Extraversion helps balance out some of that self-doubt. Extraverts are generally energized by social interaction and prefer collaboration to solving problems on their own. Learning from others can help them streamline and communicate their ideas.

Confident Individualism (33%)

Introverted Confident Individualists place a high premium on self-reliance, which often inspires offbeat solutions. Their Assertive Identity gives these personalities a great deal of confidence in themselves, so even if others view their ideas as unnecessarily complicated, they won’t worry too much about it. Since they strongly prefer to do things on their own, Confident Individualists may also feel little motivation to simplify a solution that works for them for the sake of someone else.

People Mastery (24%)

Finally, People Masters, as Extraverted, Assertive personalities, were the least likely to agree with our statement. People Masters are excellent communicators who are capable of conveying their ideas in a manner that can make even complicated solutions seem simple. Confident in their own ideas but open to collaboration and compromise, People Masters know how to inspire trust, so that whether their problem-solving tends to be straightforward or complicated, people may be more willing to go along with their plans and less likely to criticize them as unnecessarily complex.

Conclusions

As we sometimes learn the hard way, “simple” solutions are often more complicated than they seem. We all have different strengths, and no one can be the best at solving every different type of problem we may face in life.

An Introverted, Turbulent Analyst personality type, for instance, may be able to design a glorious Rube Goldberg machine but struggle to explain how it works or resolve conflicts within a team, so that actually building that machine becomes a much more challenging undertaking. Small misunderstandings can easily create unfair impressions that someone is an overly complicated – or overly simplistic – problem-solver.

As this study shows, the keys to creating and implementing effective solutions that are not perceived by others as overly complicated include openness to collaboration, a focus on that which is practical and efficient, and, above all, communication. Willingness to share your ideas, to incorporate feedback, and to ask for help when you find yourself outside of your comfort zone can make a big difference.

What about you? Do others see your ways of solving problems as Rube Goldberg-esque or as simple and efficient? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

You can see the full set of data, including correlation coefficients, in the Academy. Please also consider participating in our Member Surveys!

1 week ago
As an INFP-T (Mediator, Constant Improvement), I 100% agree with this. No one has ever explicitly told me that how I solve problems is too complex, but I know people think it. Even I think that my brain works very strangely, but I like it that way, and it's amusing to me when I have it all figured out with my complex thoughts, and other people are still trying to get the simple ideas of the topic.
1 week ago
As an ENFJ-A (People Mastery), it’s a 50-50 for me.
2 weeks ago
My problem solving can sometimes be unnecessarily complex; however, I don't realize it is sometimes until after the fact or when someone points it out to me. I do try to problem solve simply whenever I can.
2 weeks ago
I think that we, INTJ and INTP, try to cover all the possible outcomes and ramifications when planning something, our interest in doing "something different" or new, and the fact that we probably don't want to explain to others how we reach such conclusion may end up in a innovative (but sometimes overly complicated) solution to a problem. Sometimes the road less traveled, is the less traveled for a reason.
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