Why People Forget that Less is Often More

Why, when solving problems, do people prefer adding things to getting rid of them? In an article for The Economist, Batten’s Gabrielle Adams and Benjamin Converse explain their research on subtractive improvements.

Lego structure
In three different studies involving modifying structures built from blocks, just 2-12% of respondents chose to remove blocks. (Contributed Photo)

Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars, was one of motor racing’s most influential engineers. His philosophy was "simplify, then add lightness." A stripped-down, featherweight car might be slower on the straights than a beefy muscle-machine, he reasoned. But it would be faster everywhere else. Between 1962 and 1978 Lotus won seven Formula One constructors championships.

It appears to be an uncommon insight. A paper published in Nature suggests that humans struggle with subtractive thinking. When asked to improve something—a Lego-brick structure, an essay, a golf course or a university—they tend to suggest adding new things rather than stripping back what is already there, even when additions lead to sub-par results.

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