In a new paper on the cover Nature, University of Virginia researchers explain why people rarely look at a situation, subject, or idea that needs to be improved – in all contexts – and think of removing something as a solution. Instead, we almost always add some element, whether it helps or not.
The team’s findings suggest a basic reason why people struggle with irresistible schedules, that institutions are sinking into a growing bureaucracy, and, most importantly for researchers, that humanity is depleting the planet’s resources.
“It’s happening in engineering design, which is my main interest,” said Leidy Klotz, an associate professor in Copenhaver at the Department of Engineering Systems and the Environment. “But it also happens in writing, cooking and everything else – just think about your work and you’ll see it. The first thing that comes to mind is that we can add to make it better. Our work shows that we do this to our detriment, even when the only real answer is to take away. Even with a financial incentive, we still don’t intend to take away. “
Klotz, whose research explores the overlaps between engineering and behavioral science, has teamed up with three colleagues from Batten’s School of Leadership and Public Policy in an interdisciplinary study that shows how additive we are by nature. Batten, the faculty of public policy and psychology, assistant professor Gabrielle Adams and associate professor Benjamin Converse, and former Batten postdoctoral fellow Andrew Hales, collaborated with Klotz on a series of observational studies and experiments to study the phenomenon.
When considering two broad possibilities as to why people are systematically denied collection – either generating ideas for both possibilities and disproportionately rejecting subtractive solutions or overlooking subjective ideas altogether – the researchers focused on the latter.
“Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort,” Converse said. “Because people often move fast and work with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without even thinking about taking away.”
Researchers think there could be 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 can be solidified and strengthened, and in the long run we miss many opportunities to improve the world by taking away.”
Klotz has a book that expands on the subject, Subtract: Unused science of the lesser, comes out a week after Nature paper. Although the timing is random, both the paper and the book are products of an interdisciplinary and collaborative research environment at UVA, he said.
“It’s an incredibly interesting discovery and I think our research has huge implications in all contexts, but especially in engineering to improve how we design technology for the benefit of humanity,” Klotz said.