“It happens in engineering design, which is my main interest... But it also happens in writing, cooking and everything else — just think about your own work and you will see it. The first thing that comes to our minds is, what can we add to make it better. Our paper shows we do this to our detriment, even when the only right answer is to subtract. Even with financial incentive, we still don’t think to take away,” says Leidy Klotz, Copenhaver Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia, about a new study led by her.
Featured on the cover of the journal Nature, the researchers explain why people rarely look at a situation, object or idea that needs improving — in all kinds of contexts — and think to remove something as a solution; instead, we almost always add some element, whether it helps or not; writes Jennifer McManamay in a report on the study on the University's website.
"If, as the saying goes, less is more, why do we humans overdo so much?" the team of researchers asked themselves before embarking on this project.
The team’s findings suggest a fundamental reason that people struggle with overwhelming schedules, that institutions bog down in proliferating red tape, and, of particular interest to researchers, that humanity is exhausting the planet’s resources.
When considering two broad possibilities for why people systematically default to addition — either they generate ideas for both possibilities and disproportionately discard subtractive solutions or they overlook subtractive ideas altogether — the researchers focused on the latter.
“Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort,” says Benjamin Converse, co-author of the study. “Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all.”
The researchers think there may be a self-reinforcing effect.
“The more often people rely on additive strategies, the more cognitively accessible they become,” says assistant professor Gabrielle Adams, one of the other co-authors. “Over time, the habit of looking for additive ideas may get stronger and stronger, and in the long run, we end up missing out on many opportunities to improve the world by subtraction.”
Klotz has a book that takes a wider view of the topic, Subtract: The Untapped Science Of Less, coming out a week after the Nature paper. Although the timing is coincidence, both the paper and book are products of the interdisciplinary and collaborative research environment at UVA, he said.
“It’s an incredibly interesting finding, and I think our research has tremendous implications across contexts, but especially in engineering to improve how we design technology to benefit humanity,” Klotz said.
"Perhaps, the researchers reasoned, people have no problems remembering to add things even without any prompting. So they collected a bit of data on people's tendencies in this regard. They found that additive solutions were far more common than subtractive ones. For example, when an incoming university president solicited ideas for improvements, only 11% involved getting rid of something," writes John Timmer in Ars Technica in a story about the study. "In an experiment that involved making patterns out of colored squares, only 20 percent of the participants removed squares in order to achieve a pattern, even though either option was equally viable...When asked to improve a travel itinerary, only 28 percent of the participants did so by eliminating destinations. Essay improvements led to an increase in word counts in all but 17% of the cases. People just didn't tend to take things away in a huge range of contexts."