Adding Is Favored Over Subtracting In Problem Solving

A series of problem-solving experiments reveal that people are more likely to consider solutions that add features than solutions that remove them, even when removing features is more efficient. Nature reports: Across a series of […] experiments, the authors observe that people consistently consider changes that add components over those that subtract them — a tendency that has broad implications for everyday decision-making. For example, Adams et al. and colleagues analyzed archival data and observed that, when an incoming university president requested suggestions for changes that would allow the university to better serve its students and community, only 11% of the responses involved removing an existing regulation, practice or program. Similarly, when the authors asked study participants to make a 10 x 10 grid of green and white boxes symmetrical, participants often added green boxes to the emptier half of the grid rather than removing them from the fuller half, even when doing the latter would have been more efficient.

Adams et al. demonstrated that the reason their participants offered so few subtractive solutions is not because they didn’t recognize the value of those solutions, but because they failed to consider them. Indeed, when instructions explicitly mentioned the possibility of subtractive solutions, or when participants had more opportunity to think or practice, the likelihood of offering subtractive solutions increased. It thus seems that people are prone to apply a ‘what can we add here?’ heuristic (a default strategy to simplify and speed up decision-making). This heuristic can be overcome by exerting extra cognitive effort to consider other, less-intuitive solutions.

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