Why our brains miss opportunities to improve through subtraction
If, as the saying goes, less is more, why do we keeping adding things to our lives and overdo it so much?
A study published in the journal Nature, by University of Virginia researchers Leidy Klotz, author of the book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, explores the overlaps between engineering and behavioral science. Klotz collaborated with three colleagues from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, and Andrew Hales. Their research came up with an answer to explain why people rarely look at a situation, object or idea that needs improving and think to delete something to find a solution.
Rather, the researchers concluded, people almost always add something, whether it is helpful or not.
Klotz and colleagues concluded that might explain why peoples’ and organizations’ work are overwhelmed by schedules, meetings, and red tape. And this overwhelm can lead to stress and exhaustion.
“It happens in engineering design, which is my main interest,” said Leidy Klotz, “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.”
Adams says that “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.” She goes on to say: “Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort.”
Converse says: “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 believe there is a self-reinforcing effect. “The more often people rely on additive strategies, the more cognitively accessible they become,” Adams said. “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 concludes their research is “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.”
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