What wildlife, politics, pain, and relationships have in common.


The lessons of the Simplicity Trap—pursuing obvious and simple, but dangerously wrong connections—can be applied to almost everything in life, from politics to health to relationships.

The Yellowstone Simplicity Trap

Alton Chase writes in his book, Playing God in Yellowstone, that Yellowstone National Park, when created in 1872 was full of wildlife. In 1903, Yellowstone had elks, bison, antelope, cougar, lynx, sheep, deer, coyotes, wolves, beavers, etc. But in 1934, white-tailed deer and antelopes were gone from the park. 

Why was that?

Since game hunting had been banned, The National Park Service thought the problem was predators. That would make sense, right? If there were no more predators, the deer population, if reintroduced, should thrive. With that mindset, the National Park Service killed mountain lions and eliminated wolves and cougars from the park. But the more predators the National Park Service killed, Chase writes, “the greater the decline of the game; and the greater the decline of the game, the more predators they killed.”

Perplexed, the park service called biologist Adolph Murie, who studied the problem from 1937 to 1939 and concluded that the problem was not the predators but elks. Hungry elk herds had destroyed the park’s aspen and willow trees. As a consequence, deer and antelope didn’t have enough to eat. The second consequence of the destruction of the park aspen and willow trees was that beavers couldn’t build dams anymore, so meadows lost their water management system, which caused the soil to dry out which decreased plant growth, which caused the deer and antelope population to starve even more.  

The Simplicity Trap had created a vicious cycle.

The solution was to reintroduce predators to decrease the elk population so that aspen and willow trees could grow again, so beavers could use that material to build dams to allow the meadows to manage their water, so that plants could grow, and so deer could feed. That solution worked.

It was important to recognize the complex intricate reality of the ecosystem and understand all of its parts so that a fix could be found.

The U.S.-Russia Simplicity Trap

George Beebe, in his new book The Russia Trap, compares the story of Yellowstone National Park to the U.S.-Russia relationship. Beebe, former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, explains that we think that the problem with Russia is simple: Russia is an aggressor in the escalating tension between the two countries, and so the solution is to impose more sanctions on Russia to get them to stop aggressive actions.

Originally Published on Psychology Today

© Dr. Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD

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