Integrative Complexity

Integrative Complexity Definition

Integrative complexity deals with how people process information. Some people may view things in simple terms (e.g., John is always introverted), and some may view them in more complex ways (e.g., whether John is introverted depends on how well he knows the people in the situation). More formally, level of complexity depends on two underlying variables:

  1. the capacity and willingness to accept that there is more than one way to look at an issue and to acknowledge that these differing perspectives are all legitimate (differentiation), and
  2. the ability to form conceptual links among these perspectives and to integrate them into a coherent overall judgment (integration).

Integrative ComplexityLow differentiation implies lack of awareness or acceptance of alternative ways of looking at an issue. For example, a person who thinks of abortion as coldblooded murder and thinks that those who believe it is a woman’s right to choose are completely wrong would be considered cognitively simple. Only one way of looking at an issue is accepted as reasonable. Other alternatives are dismissed and viewed as illegitimate. It suggests a reliance on rigid decision rules for interpreting events and making choices. A more differentiated statement would recognize the legitimacy of looking at the same issue in different ways or along different dimensions. For example, if a person was to accept that some people view abortion as an act of murder while others view it as a civil liberties issue concerning a woman’s right to choose, he or she would be considered more complex. And yet, even though each point of view is considered valid, each is considered in isolation. No connections or links are made between the different perspectives. This response, therefore, indicates differentiation but not integration.

Indeed, differentiation is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for integration. That is, without acknowledging that there is more than one legitimate way to think about an issue, no connection between perspectives can be created. The complexity of integration depends on whether the person perceives the differentiated characteristics as existing in isolation (low integration), in simple interactions (moderate integration), or in multiple, contingent patterns (high integration). For example, statements reflecting moderate integration might specify why two contradictory views are both legitimate (e.g., whether abortion is viewed as murder or as a civil rights issue depends on one’s view about when the developing organism within the mother becomes a human being). Importantly, complexity focuses on how people think and process information. It is concerned with cognitive structure. The content of people’s thoughts is irrelevant.

Integrative Complexity Background and History

Originally, integrative complexity was viewed as a relatively stable personality trait. It was used to capture individual differences in styles of social thinking. Cognitively simple individuals were viewed as people who dislike ambiguity and dissonance and seek rapid cognitive closure in judging others and in making decisions. They form dichotomous (good vs. bad) impressions of people, events, and issues. In contrast, cognitively complex individuals adopt a more flexible, open-minded, and multidimensional view of the social world. They recognize that life has many inconsistencies and contradictions and realize that there is more then one side to every story when forming their impressions.

Empirical research focused on how to measure complexity and on how level of complexity affects behavior in various situations. Early efforts to measure complexity relied on the Paragraph Completion Test. This test presented participants with several sentence stems (i.e., topic sentences) that focused on issues such as interpersonal conflict and relations to authority. Participants were asked to complete each stem and write at least one additional sentence. Two trained coders then assessed the responses on a 7-point complexity scale ranging from complete lack of differentiation to high-order integration. In the mid-1970s, researchers adapted this methodology to content-analyze archival data and free-response protocols that were not necessarily written for the purpose of complexity coding. As result, the range of research applications has expanded enormously. Researchers were able to analyze materials as varied as the diaries of historical figures, diplomatic communica-tions, and Supreme Court decisions.

Early research on individual differences in integrative complexity proved fruitful. For example, studies found that integratively complex individuals tend to construct more accurate and balanced perceptions of other people, notice more aspects of the environment, use more information when making decisions, be more open to disconfirming information, and hold less extreme views than do cognitively simple individuals. They also tend to be less susceptible to information overload and prejudice, better able to resolve conflicts cooperatively, and more creative.

And yet, viewing complexity as a stable personality trait proved too confining. Researchers began to realize that level of complexity may not be as stable as once thought. Rather, it can also be affected by a variety of situational and environmental factors. Two lines of research emerged. One area of work focused on the impact of environmental stressors on the complexity of thinking. Some stressors, such as time pressure, information overload, and threat, were found to reduce level of complexity, whereas other stressors, such as moderately negative life events, were found to elevate complexity. A second line of research focused on the effects of value conflict, accountability demands, and audience characteristics on complexity. For example, it was shown that when confronted with a conflict between two values (e.g., social equality vs. economic efficiency), individuals who viewed both values as equally important resolved the conflict in more complex ways than did individuals who believed more strongly in one value than the other. This work also found that individuals could think in complex ways on certain topics but think in simple ways on others. By treating integrative complexity as a domain-specific and situation-specific construct, research was able to shed light on the conditions under which people can be motivated to think complexly as well as increase their understanding of when complexity is likely to prove adaptive.

Is Integrative Complexity Good or Bad?

The most widely held view of integrative complexity appears to be “the more the better.” Indeed, complex individuals have been found to be resistant to a number of judgmental biases. For example, they are more willing to change their initial impressions in the face of contradictory evidence, they are more likely to take into account situational constraints on individuals’ behavior, and they are less likely to become overconfident in the correctness of their judgments and predictions. However, for each bias reduced due to complexity of thought, there is a different bias that may be exasperated. For example, complex individuals tend to get bogged down in insignificant details, rendering them less capable of making a decision and less willing to take risks. They are also more likely to choose a middle-of-the-road option not because it is truly preferable but simply because it is easier to justify and defend. Finally, they are also more likely to procrastinate, pass responsibility to others, or both, in the face of difficult decisions. Therefore, a more realistic view of complexity is that the situation will determine when it should be considered an asset and when a hindrance. It is also possible that individuals might be able to avoid the potential pitfalls of higher levels of integrative complexity if they cultivate an overarching capacity to switch between more complex and simpler ways of reasoning depending on what is more appropriate for a given situation.

Integrative Complexity Implications

The study of integrative complexity has increased researchers’ understanding of a wide variety of issues in social psychology. Experimental research has concentrated on the effects of different information processing styles on social perception, attitude and attitude change, attribution, work performance, cross-cultural communication, and acculturation. Archival research has focused on issues such as the effects of social and political roles, predicting international crisis, and even the expected success and duration of leader careers.


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