Over-analyzing is a dilemma in problem solving that arises when consideration of multiple variables makes a timely decision difficult or impossible. It is sometimes called more whimsical names, such as “analysis paralysis” or “the centipede’s dilemma.” Although this is an ancient concept, it has become increasingly prevalent in modern times. Management structures in government and business are prone to over-analyzing problems, leading to complex bureaucracies. Ordinary people are faced with information overload from rapidly advancing technologies and the many choices available in consumer societies.
The problem of over-analyzing was illustrated in ancient fables such as “The Fox and the Cat,” credited to the Greek storyteller Aesop. A fox boasts to a cat that he has numerous ways of escaping danger, but when pursued by dogs, he cannot decide which method is best, resulting in his capture. Similar tales are found in the folklore of ancient China, India and the Middle East. Another old story involves a centipede who is asked how it manages to coordinate its many legs. The centipede, over-analyzing the question, forgets how to walk.
Humorous examples aside, over-analyzing can be a very real problem. Large corporations and government agencies can encounter this difficulty when considering all the possible negative and positive results of a particular policy. This “decision by committee” sometimes creates a complex web of bureaucracy. While the intent is honorable, the end result is often the opposite of the intended effect. A business may lose out to a competitor that did not analyze the problem so thoroughly, or a government program can fail to aid the citizens it was designed to help because of bureaucratic “red tape.”
The Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon ventured that any effort to analyze all possible outcomes in search of the “perfect” choice was doomed to failure. It is better, Simon reasoned, to choose a course of action and alter it as needed by changing circumstances. In his 1994 book The Paradox of Choice, social scientist Barry Schwartz argued that modern consumers are often faced with a bewildering array of products. Trying to choose the best one is a classic case of over-analyzing the problem. Consumers, he found, would often face “analysis paralysis” from the conflicting information relayed by advertisers, consumer groups, word of mouth and their own experiences.
There are many other examples of over-analyzing a choice or problem. Athletes sometimes “choke” by overthinking a crucial play, even though it involves tasks they could easily perform in other circumstances. The rapid turnover in modern technological devices often causes consumers to hesitate, especially if they suspect an upgraded model will be available in a short time. Even after selecting a device, users must choose from a multitude of possible operating systems, web sites and “apps.” An example of over-analyzing from classic literature is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who, confronted with the knowledge of his father’s murder, spends most of the play debating how and whether to proceed.