The Bikeshed Effect

Over at the Atlantic Wire they ask the question, "Why do we care about things that don't really matter?" Here's one reason:

The Bikeshed Effect, more formally known as Parkinson's Law of Triviality derived from the humor book Parkinson's Law, is "the principle that the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic," as explained in Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project. The most classic and titular example is that people care more about the color of a bike shed than the decision to build a nuclear plant because they know about colors and don't know about nuclear power.

As they go on to point out the effect influences what we talk about and thus what generates "discussion" in our modern world:

Since everyone needs to say something — especially on the Internet — these mundane things get talked about often and with vigor. Meanwhile, the more complex questions — like "How Will Yahoo Increase CPM's Given Current Trends in Digital Advertising?" — get much less attention because most people can't comment with any intelligence, as The Guardian's Oliver Burkman explained in his column "Why trivia is so important" back in 2010. "Each wants to demonstrate, to the boss or to themselves, that they are taking part, paying attention, making a difference, 'adding value,'" he wrote. "But with complex subjects about which they're ignorant, they can't: they risk humiliation."

The dumbest topics — the tilt of an exclamation point, for example — therefore, get the most attention. A related phenomenon happens a lot in the work-life balance debate, which relies a lot on personal anecdotes to talk about an important societal question. Without much knowledge or data on women in the workforce, writers and thinkers revert to their personal experiences to fuel the debate. Since these people are women and have worked and have also had children, they can speak to the issue with some intelligence. That leaves harder questions, like how most women can improve working while raising families, on the sidelines. 

People have always been trivial, ill-informed bloviators but now thanks to the online extensions of our society the effect is amplified. Rather than only being exposed only to the nimrods in your circle of friends, family, coworkers and neighbors your exposed to the hundreds of millions of nimrods you can find online. What a truly depressing thought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s