Complex vs Complicated

In the realm of Complexity Science, many people talk about how things are “Complex” but they aren’t “Complicated”.  The problem is that the two terms can be hard to distinguish.

A Complicated Organization

A Complicated Organization

Complex and Complicated: Aren’t They the Same?

Complex and Complicated are distinct terms, but they are frequently confused. This can especially be the case when you get the following definitions (from the New Oxford American Dictionary):

adjective |kämˈpleks; kəmˈpleks; ˈkämˌpleks|
1 consisting of many different and connected parts : a complex network of water channels.
• not easy to analyze or understand; complicated or intricate : a complex personality | the situation is more complex than it appears.
2 Mathematics denoting or involving numbers or quantities containing both a real and an imaginary part.
3 Chemistry denoting an ion or molecule in which one or more groups are linked to a metal atom by coordinate bonds.
noun |ˈkämˌpleks|
1 a group of similar buildings or facilities on the same site : a new apartment complex | a complex of hotels.
• a group or system of different things that are linked in a close or complicated way; a network : a complex of mountain roads.
2 Psychoanalysis a related group of emotionally significant ideas that are completely or partly repressed and that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.
• informal a disproportionate concern or anxiety about something : there’s no point having a complex about losing your hair.
3 Chemistry an ion or molecule in which one or more groups are linked to a metal atom by coordinate bonds.
• any loosely bonded species formed by the association of two molecules : cross-linked protein—DNA complexes.
verb |kämˈpleks; kəmˈpleks; ˈkämˌpleks| [ trans. ] (usu. be complexed) Chemistry
make (an atom or compound) form a complex with another : the DNA was complexed with the nuclear extract | [as adj. ] ( complexed) the complexed metal ion.
• [ intrans. ] form a complex : these proteins are capable of complexing with VP16.
complexation |kämˌplekˈsā sh ən; kəm-| noun ( Chemistry)
complexly adverb
ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (in the sense [group of related elements] ): from Latin complexus, past participle (used as a noun) of complectere ‘embrace, comprise,’ later associated with complexus ‘plaited’ ; the adjective is partly via French complexe.

complicated |ˈkämpləˌkātid|
1 consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements; intricate : a complicated stereo system.
• involving many different and confusing aspects : a long and complicated saga.
2 Medicine involving complications : complicated appendicitis.
complicatedly adverb
complicate |ˈkämpləˌkāt|
verb [ trans. ]
make (something) more difficult or confusing by causing it to be more complex : middlemen can complicate the process | [as adj. ] ( complicating) a complicating factor.
• Medicine introduce complications in (an existing condition) : smoking may complicate pregnancy.
ORIGIN early 17th cent. (in the sense [combine, entangle, intertwine] ): from Latin complicat- ‘folded together,’ from the verb complicare, from com- ‘together’ + plicare ‘to fold.’

Each term’s definition contains the other term.

Upon further research from other online dictionaries and encyclopedias, however, we can shed some light on the confusion by looking at it the way Paolo Magrassi does on his website about complexity:

“Complex” derives from the Latin verb complector, which means to encircle, to embrace firmly and, metaphorically, to hold, to comprise, to unite, to re-unite under a single thought and a single denomination.

A complicated problem, on the other hand (from complico, to fold), is one which is hard to solve because it contains a great number of hidden parts, which must be revealed one after another but, still, can be treated separately because they do not interact.

So, here is the key between the terms “complex” and “complicated”: Something Complex has parts that are interconnected, while something complicated just has many parts, some of which may be hidden.  Additionally, the individual parts of a complicated system can be solved independently/separately and lead to a solution of the system as a whole, but the individual parts of a complex system cannot be treated individually – solving them individually doesn’t help you solve or explain the behavior of the system as a whole.

Citations to this discussion:

  • “Complicated”, New Oxford American Dictionary, Apple Macintosh Version
  • “Complex”, New Oxford American Dictionary, Apple Macintosh Version
  • Paolo Magrassi, Complex

3 thoughts on “Complex vs Complicated

  1. Recognizing that everyone will have his or her own opinion, my take is that complicated is deterministic while complex is indeterminate. A commercial airliner is complicated. A terrorist is complex.

  2. I remember examples from one of my professors; he used Jigsaw and Football team to represent complicated and complex situations, respectively. This is in agreement with what is discussed in this article.


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