Why Our Brains Miss Opportunities to Improve through Subtraction

In a new paper featured on the cover of Nature, Batten’s Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse and co-authors explain why people systematically overlook subtractive improvements.

Illustration courtesy of Nature.
Illustration courtesy of Nature.

Leaders can encourage desired behavior by adding incentives or removing barriers. Designers can advance technology by introducing new features or eliminating extraneous parts. Writers can strengthen arguments by adding or deleting words. Yet, despite the promise of streamlined processes, simpler products and honed arguments, new research shows that people often fail to notice subtractive improvement opportunities because they are too quick to add.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Virginia—Gabrielle Adams, from the Batten School; Benjamin Converse, from the Batten School and the Department of Psychology; former Batten School postdoctoral researcher Andrew Hales (now a faculty member at the University of Mississippi); and Leidy Klotz, from the School of Engineering and Applied Science—have been collaborating on a series of observational studies and experiments to document and explore this phenomenon. Their new paper, featured on the cover of the April 8 issue of the journal Nature, shows that while people tend to think of additive changes quickly and easily, generating ideas for subtractive changes requires more cognitive investment. By accepting the first ideas that come to mind, people often miss out on opportunities to improve the world by subtraction.

The authors suggest that a preference for additive ideas may be one reason that people struggle with overwhelming schedules, that institutions struggle with proliferating red tape and that the planet is approaching its resource limits. When people overlook subtraction, they may neglect “opportunities to make their lives more fulfilling, their institutions more effective, and their planet more livable.”

The paper, which also is the subject of a Nature video, may be viewed here. Please continue to visit this page as new articles covering the paper’s findings are added.

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