Occam’s Razor Theory: The Answer Is the Simplest One

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Great Mental Models Volume 1" by Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s Occam’s Razor theory? How can you use it to solve problems quickly and effectively?

In the first volume of The Great Mental Models series, Farnam Street founder Shane Parrish and content strategist Rhiannon Beaubien include Occam’s Razor as one of their models, as it’s a practical thinking tool. This model helps you cut to the chase when looking for solutions.

Continue reading to understand what Occam’s Razor is and how to use it.

Occam’s Razor—Explained

Philosophers, scientists, and others use philosophical “razors” in argumentation and problem-solving. A philosophical razor is a rule of thumb designed to quickly solve a problem by eliminating unlikely solutions. The general principle is to avoid overly complex answers when a simple one does the job.

The most familiar philosophical razor is Occam’s Razor. Simply put, Occam’s Razor theory states that the simplest explanation is most often the best explanation. Given various solutions to a problem, all of which solve it equally well, you should favor the simplest answer. 

In the book, Parrish and Beaubien explain that simpler answers are mathematically more likely to be correct. A complicated explanation requires more factors to play nice, while a simple explanation requires just a few. Given a 50/50 chance that each factor works out, a three-factor theory is more likely to work out than a nine-factor theory.

Favoring the simpler answer saves you time and effort—you simply don’t bother to explore complicated paths when a simple path works. According to the authors, less time spent testing complicated possibilities means more time to move on to the next important task.

Applying Occam’s Razor Theory

When solving a problem or considering a situation, pause and ask, “All else equal, what’s the simplest solution to this?” This will help you find the most probable solution. For instance, you might decide between three solutions to a software engineering problem by picking the least complicated code string that does the job.

Remember that Occam’s Razor theory is a general rule rather than an absolute. Avoid using it to simplify genuinely complex problems, such as systemic societal issues, that require holistic, multi-factor solutions.

Occam’s Razor Theory: The Answer Is the Simplest One

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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