Is there a phrase or word for a problem that appears simple but is in fact full of complexities?

A few situations come to mind:

  • Painting a room
  • Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Eating a pomegranate

... and a million more. What to call these?

7 Answers 7


One phrase I've heard is deceptively simple, although there seems to be some debate about whether that refers to something that seems simple (but is in fact complex), or something that seems complex, but is really rather simple.

Six years ago, an online group debated this very phrase, and never really reached a consensus. You can read their debate by clicking on the link, but I think one contributor summed it up best by saying:

it's one of those phrases that can mean two opposite things, depending on context

The Free Dictionary has an interesting usage note on this deceptively complex word pairing; it shows that even experts disagree on the matter. Another blogger has warned, don't use this phrase in a vacuum; it won't be clear what you're trying to convey.

Sometimes, though, the intended meaning can be easily inferred from the context:

Golf is deceptively simple, endlessly complicated. (Arnold Palmer)

I'd say this question is deceptively simple, too – but I'll leave it up to you to figure out what I mean by that.

  • 1
    This is a great example of a well-attributed posting. You actually say who (read, which source) is saying what.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 23:15

Most people would probably just use the description 'harder than it looks'. More esoteric, and a noun phrase, is 'Russian doll problem'; this would seem applicable to complex problems involving logical reasoning or dexterity rather than complex emotional problems.

  • 1
    Or "harder than it sounds" depending on the context :) Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 1:10

Pitfall ("a potential problem, hazard, or danger that is easily encountered but not immediately obvious") looks like an appropriate term. Also consider adjectives like deceptive ("misleading, likely or attempting to deceive "), subtle ("Hard to grasp; not obvious or easily understood; barely noticeable"), tricky ("hard to deal with, complicated"). Figuratively, you might refer to a snare ("(rare) A mental or psychological trap; usually in the phrase a snare and a delusion"), a trap (in sense "A trick or arrangement designed to catch someone in a more general sense"), or deadfall ("A kind of trap for large animals") or quicksand (in sense "Anything that pulls one down or buries one metaphorically").


Can of worms is a phrase that's often used to describe complex situations or unforeseen trouble ahead.

  • I think this is closest of any solutions offered so far Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 16:27
  • @SamTheBrand "Opening up a can of worms" talks more about the situation being troublesome (or complicated in that sense) than complex. It might perhaps work when describing a break-up, but not when painting a room or eating a pomegranate. That said, it's an excellent suggestion. Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 17:22

The term simplism refers to the approach to such a problem.

According to MW:

the act or an instance of oversimplifying; especially : the reduction of a problem to a false simplicity by ignoring complicating factors

The adjective simplistic is found much more often and is used to characterize the actor's efforts.

See ngram simplism/simplistic:


(The drop after 2000 is curious unless it is a data collection artifact.)


I’m reminded of project work where you might qualify an effort as, “open ended” or “unbound”, relative to time estimation.

Or a tangled, ensnaring, or snowballing task - or even invoke the "One step forward two steps back" idiom.

(That said, I up-voted Can of Worms, which nails the counterintuitive nature of it, and Deceptively Simple, which is just a great post. These are just extra ideas for you.)


While it isn't an exact fit, the Japanese (as usual) have the word shibui to represent something which is simple, yet complex. Howeer, the complexity that it alludes to is not used to connote difficulty. Instead, it represents qualities such as subtlety, harmony, elegance, and profundity.

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