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Integrative complexity

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Integrative complexity refers to the extent to which individuals demonstrate two inclinations when they consider events and issues. The first dimension, differentiation, relates to the capacity of individuals to adopt and to apply a variety of perspectives to appreciate an issue. The second dimension, integration, refers to the capacity of individuals to recognize connections and similarities across divergent perspectives. Hence, when integrative complexity is low, individuals tend to form simple and rigid attitudes and perceptions (Suedfeld, Tetlock, & Streufert, 1992).

Complex thinkers tend to consider an extensive range of issues, attempting to reconcile contradictory implications (Winter, 1996). As a consequence, they enjoy many benefits. First, their performance, in many domains, tends to be more proficient. Their capacity to accommodate stress tends to improve (Suedfeld & Piedrahita, 1984). Their attitudes and beliefs are less susceptible to isolated events or persuasive attempts. Their ability to predict the behavior of other individuals also improves. Nevertheless, some limitations of integrative complexity have been observed as well (for a summary of this literature, see Lee & Peterson, 1997).

Correlates and consequences of integrative complexity


In general, when integrative complexity is low, aggression and hostility often prevail (Bruch, McCann, & Harvey, 1991;; Winter. 1993). As Winter (1993) showed, for example, if police officers do not exhibit integrative complexity, they are more inclined to act violently in stressful contexts. Conceivably, when integrative complexity is low, other options to solve problems are less likely to be considered.

Political preferences

Many studies in this literature have examined the relationship between political preferences and integrative complexity (Tetlock, 1983, 1984;; Tetlock, Hannum, & Micheletti, 1984). In general, these studies show that liberal or moderate politicians exhibit complex rather than simple thinking styles. That is, their integrative complexity is elevated, relative to their more conservative and extreme counterparts.

To explain this pattern of observations, Tetlock (1983, 1986) argues that individuals who do not engage in complex thinking feel threatened by the prospect of a dynamic, changing, and chaotic society. They will, therefore, espouse political principles that attempt to stifle this change.

Gruenfeld (1995), however, highlighted a problem in many previous studies. To illustrate, some of these studies examined the discourse of justices in the Supreme Court. In this context, political persuasion is often conflated with whether the individual represent a majority or minority position. Minorities, because of their limited power, might experience a diminution in their integrative complexity as a consequence--as shown by Tetlock, Bernzweig, and Gallant (1985). Political persuasion per se might not affect integrative complexity.

Indeed, several accounts are consistent with the proposition that individuals who adopt a majority position might show an increase in integrative complexity. First, individuals who espouse the majority position often attempt to reconceptualize their perspective to accommodate, trivialize, or nullify the minority position (Nemeth, 1986)--a process that necessitates the consideration and integration of other dimensions or factors and fosters creativity (see also Nemeth & Wachtler, 1983).

In contrast, individuals who adopt a minority position often focus most of their attention to attempts to comply with the majority position, which can limit the breadth of issues that are examined. In addition, other mental states, such as self awareness or threat, can also compromise this flexibility (see Gibbons, 1990;; Lord & Saenz, 1985).

In addition, individuals who adopt a majority position often feel the need, at least, to communicate and accommodate many perspectives. Politicians in minor parties, for example, only feel the need to represent their own constituency or platform. Large parties, however, feel the need to accommodate the needs many constituencies (see Tetlock, 1981;; Tetlock, Hannum, & Micheletti, 1984).

Consistent with these accounts, Gruenfeld (1995) showed that whether individuals belonged to a majority, rather than political persuasion, determined integrative complexity.


Many practitioners and researchers assume that integrative complexity should coincide with proficient performance. Indeed, difficult activities, in which many individuals must collaborate to solve some intellectual problems, do demand this form of thinking (Gruenfeld & Hollingshead, 1993).

Feist (1994) showed that scientists who demonstrated integrative complexity in their research were often cited more frequently--and were perceived as eminent by peers but hostile by other individuals. Nevertheless, integrative complexity in their teaching was not associated with citations, but was related to favorable ratings of warmth.

Indeed, on numerous tasks, complexity is not beneficial. Indeed, when the task demands rapid decisions, or when individuals could be exploited, low complexity might be preferable. Indeed, as research has shown, low complexity is associated with proficient performance in some negotiation tasks (Gruenfeld & Hollingshead, 1993).

Corporate social performance

The integrative complexity of senior managers affects the extent to which the company demonstrates corporate social responsibility (Wong, Ormiston, & Tetlock, 2011). That is, if the top management team exhibits integrative complexity, the company is more likely to be perceived as superior on employee relations, human rights, receptivity to diversity, community relations, corporate governance, and environment responsibility.

This possibility was confirmed by Wong, Ormiston, and Tetlock (2011). A sample of over 60 manufacturing companies was examined. First, senior managers undertook a Q sort to ascertain the integrative complexity of their team. In essence, they needed to decide whether specific statements such as "The group subscribes to a rigid, dichotomous view of the world (i.e., there are good guys and bad guys and nothing in between)" are more accurate than other statements such as "The group has a flexible multidimensional world view (i.e., good guys are not always good, bad guys are not always bad, and reasonable people can often disagree over what counts as good or bad)."

In addition, ratings of the corporate social performance of these companies were derived from a financial advisory. This financial advisory firm gleans data from articles that rank companies, data from the company, government documents, and other sources to evaluate the employee relations, human rights, receptivity to diversity, community relations, corporate governance, and environment responsibility of organizations. Finally, whether decisions tend to be confined to the senior group or distributed across the organization was assessed.

In general, if the senior management team exhibited integrative complexity, their company was more likely to demonstrate corporate social responsibility, especially if decisions were centralized. Presumably, when teams demonstrate integrative complexity, each manager is attuned to the needs of disparate stakeholders. Furthermore, they integrate the different opinions of each other effectively.

Determinants of integrative complexity


Several studies have shown how life events, especially stressful episodes, can affect the integrative complexity of individuals. Porter and Suedfeld (1981), for example, examined the integrative complexity of five novelists over the course of their lives. This study showed that stressful life events can reduce integrative complexity.

Indeed, many studies have shown that stressful events can undermine integrative complexity. Events such as war, economic decline, impending death, and international tension can reduce this form of complexity (Porter & Suedfeld, 1981;; Suedfeld, Corteen, & McCormick, 1986;; Suedfeld & Garanstein, 1995).


Tetlock, Peterson, and Berry (1993) examined the association between personality and integrative complexity. As self report measures indicated, complex individuals report elevated scores on openness, but low scores on compliance and conscientiousness. However, as ratings of observers indicated, these individuals also seemed antagonistic and even narcissistic. Nevertheless, they also showed more initiative, as rated by managers, and more motivation to seek power, as gauged by a projective test called the PSE (see also Coren & Suedfeld, 1995).

Multicultural engagement

When some people travel or work in other nations, they actively engage in other cultures, called multicultural engagement. For example, they strive purposefully to learn about the customs, traditions, values and beliefs of other cultures. In addition, they adapt their behavior to align closely with these cultures. As Maddux, Bivolaru, Hafenbrack, Tadmor, and Galinsky (2013) showed, this cultural engagement tends to enhance integrative complexity, ultimately improving the future job prospects of individuals.

To assess this possibility, 115 MBA students completed a questionnaire. These students were citizens of various nations but studying in either France or Singapore. The questionnaire assessed the degree to which they actively learnt about the host culture and adapted their behaviors accordingly. In addition, a measure of integrative complexity was included. Specifically, participants wrote an essay on the benefits and pitfalls of multicultural teams. References to many dimensions and perspectives represented differentiation. Conceptual integration of these references represented integration. Individuals who exhibited multicultural engagement at one time were more likely to receive job offers soon after the program--and this relationship was mediated by integrative complexity.

Presumably, when people immerse themselves in norms and values that diverge from their own, they need to override the feelings of conflict this divergence might elicit. To reconcile these different perspectives, they learn to engage in a series of cognitive operations, such as consider several dimensions of one issue as well as the associations between these dimensions. This mindset may become habitual and, ultimately, foster integrative complexity. This integrative complexity can then facilitate the capacity of individuals to solve problems creatively and flexibly, improving success in job applications.

Measurement of integrative complexity

Source of data

Originally, the paragraph completion test was utilized to measure integrative complexity, as recommended by Suedfeld, Tetlock, and Streufert (1992). First, participants were instructed to complete phrases, such as "When I am confused..." or "When a friend acts differently...". Next, trained judges rate the integrative complexity of these responses.

Tetlock, Peterson, and Berry (1993), instead, instructed participants to write descriptions about ambiguous pictures, called the picture story exercise. Again, expert judges rated the integrative complexity of these responses.

In most studies, however, integrative complexity is derived from archival data--usually from justifications of policies, positions, preferences, and attitudes. Examples include personal letters (Suedfeld & Bluck, 1993), policy statements (Tetlock & Boettger, 1989), diplomatic documents (Suedfeld & Tetlock, 1977), and speeches (Tetlock, 1983). This source of data primarily reflects the literature in which integrative complexity is most often considered: political psychology.

Rating of data

To measure integrative complexity, the data are divided into units. Units, which are typically paragraphs, are defined as segments of text that relate to one idea. Judges then use a rating scheme to evaluate the integrative complexity of each unit on a seven point scale. For example, 1 represents low differentiation and low integration& 7 represents high differentiation and high integration--as defined by various principles (for more information, see Baker-Brown, Ballard, Bluck, de Vries, Suedfeld, & Tetlock, 1992).

More specifically, 1 to 3 represent increasing levels of differentiation, with no integration. In contrast, 4 to 7 represent reasonably levels of differentiation, with increasing levels of integration.

Usually, judges receive appreciable training to gauge integrating complexity. Judges receive eight sets of paragraphs, on a diverse array of topics. They would attempt to evaluate the integrative complexity of each paragraph, after differentiation and integration are defined and the coding scheme is delineated. These judges would be deemed to be reliable once the correlation between their own ratings and the accepted ratings of these paragraphs exceeded some criterion, such as .80 (e.g., Feist, 1994).

Team integrative complexity

The groups dynamics Q sort is a technique that has been utilized to assess the intellectual flexibility of a team. Integrative flexibility corresponds to the capacity of teams to recognize the diverse perspectives of each issue and to adjust their opinions in response to additional information--a capacity that is closely related to integrative complexity. Participants receive 100 cards, comprising two statements, such as "The group subscribes to a rigid, dichotomous view of the world (i.e., there are good guys and bad guys and nothing in between)" and "The group has a flexible multidimensional world view (i.e., good guys are not always good, bad guys are not always bad, and reasonable people can often disagree over what counts as good or bad)." They sort these cards into one of nine piles, depending on which these two statements is most characteristic of the team (e.g., Peterson et al., 1998).

Unit of analysis

Most researchers examine the integrative complexity of individuals. Some researchers, however, focus on the integrative complexity of groups (Gruenfeld & Hollingshead, 1993;; Suedfeld & Tetlock, 1977;; Tetlock & Boettger, 1989;; Walker & Watson, 1994). That is, they evaluate the integrative complexity of texts that represent broader collectives, such as political platforms.

Often, as shown by Gruenfeld and Hollingshead (1993), integrative complexity is more pronounced in groups than alone. Gruenfeld and Hollingshead (1993), for example, showed that integrative complexity was higher in group essays than individual essays. In the group context, presumably, individuals are exposed to diverse perspective and learn to integrate these stances in this setting.

Variations across contexts

In many studies, integrative complexity is assumed to be trait, relatively constant across time. Some research, such as Feist (1994), has shown that integrative complexity also varies across contexts.

Related concepts

Integrative complexity is comparable to many other concepts, such as flexibility, wisdom, and rationality--all of which are related to psychological wellbeing and health (e.g., Meichenbaum, 1985;; Millon, 1981;; Rogers & Wright, 1975;; Ruderman, 1986, Shapiro, 1965, Vaillant, 1977). These concepts share the proposition that individuals should be able to reflect upon issues from multiple perspectives and then assimilate these insights.

Need for closure is also related to integrative complexity (see need for closure). Nevertheless, Suedfeld and Tetlock (2001) argue these concepts, although related, are distinct.

Practical implications

Some tasks demand integrative complexity. In particular, complex activities that demand joint collaboration across individuals to solve some intellectual problems, with no pressing time constraints, demand this form of thinking (Gruenfeld & Hollingshead, 1993).

To foster this thinking style, managers should ensure that many of the individuals in a workgroup or team feel they espouse the same opinion or attitude towards some issue. Two or three individuals, however, should be chosen to express divergent perspectives. This configuration ensures the majority of individuals will exhibit more integrative complexity, ultimately fostering creative and novel perspectives.


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