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People Add Rather Than Subtract to Solve Problems, Study Finds

animation of person in bedroom with objects appearing and disappearing

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that people tend to add rather than subtract when it comes to all kinds of situations.
  • The findings explain how people’s inability to subtract relates to overburdened schedules, red tape in institutions, and the exhaustion of the planet’s resources.
  • There are ways to bring subtraction into your life.

When situations need changing or improving, humans turn to adding rather than subtracting in
hopes of resolution, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

“People don't even think of taking away as an option, even when it's better,” Leidy Klotz, PhD, Copenhaver associate professor of engineering systems and environment at the University of Virginia, tells Verywell. 

Klotz conducted research that looked at overlaps between engineering and behavioral science to show people’s innate tendency toward additive behavior. 

His team conducted eight observational experiments, in which participants were asked to make changes to a variety of things, including designs, essays, recipes, itineraries, structures, and even miniature-golf holes. 

They discovered that participants were less likely to identify how subtractive changes could make a difference when the task: 

  • Did not suggest they consider subtraction (compared to when it did)
  • Had only one opportunity (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy
  • Involved a higher (versus lower) cognitive load 

Klotz says the findings explain how people’s inability to subtract relates to all kinds of situations, such as when it comes to managing overburdened schedules, the creation of red tape in institutions, and humanity’s exhaustion of the planet’s resources. 

“It's everywhere! The same oversight leaves us with overflowing closets and inboxes, overbooked
schedules, and minds cluttered with too much information,” he says. 

A Tendency Toward More

Klotz says there are overlapping reasons people often look at a situation that needs improving and think to add something rather than remove it

“We’re pulled to add because we are biologically wired to acquire food, civilization has been built by adding things, our economic system prioritizes growth, and so on,” he says. 

Leidy Klotz, PhD

We’re pulled to add because we are biologically wired to acquire food, civilization has been built by adding things, our economic system prioritizes growth, and so on

— Leidy Klotz, PhD

Patrick Wanis, PhD, human behavior expert, agrees, noting that from birth, the need to add arises. 

“We constantly focus on more. Give the baby more food they like, more toys, and when talking about their age, we’ll even say they are 1 and so many months,” Wanis tells Verywell. 

In Western culture, he says this is driven by society’s focus on doing more, being more, and having more. In other words, more is more. 

“These are the messages that our society gives us, that our parents give us, that religion gives us, that school gives us. Because we tend to measure our value based on what we have--possessions,
money, successes—we are always thinking about more,” says Wanis. 

We Think Adding is Easier

For his book Subtract, Klotz researched math subtracting. In the book, he writes: 

“When we transform things from how they were to how we want them to be, we need proof—to show mates, competitors, and ourselves. Adding a freeway or file folder shows the world what we did.” 

When it comes to the process of adding versus subtracting, he notes that subtracting may be more difficult. 

“In short, I think it's likely that our general finding—that it's harder to think about taking things away—is a reason why it's harder to do math subtracting,” he says. 

Wanis points out that while there is some scientific research that shows people are hardwired to add rather than subtract, he believes it’s more than the act of adding and subtracting from a mathematical perspective. 

“It’s a habit we form as a default response. So instead of standing back and evaluating what is required to improve the situation (do we need to bring in more people or stuff or is there another different solution?), we act impulsively,” he says. 

Ways to Subtract in Your Life

Just because taking away is harder, doesn't mean it's impossible, says Klotz. 

“People do manage to subtract in all kinds of situations. My book distills the secrets of exemplars who subtract to improve cities, music, graphics, and more,” he says. 

Patrick Wanis, PhD

Because we tend to measure our value based on what we have—possessions, money, successes—we are always thinking about more.

— Patrick Wanis, PhD

He stresses that taking away is a fundamental option whenever trying to improve something. 

“Trying to improve things is the essential task of education, medicine, engineering, and every other professional endeavor. We are trying to improve things when we pursue happiness and fulfillment in our daily lives,” says Klotz. “So, as people encounter all of these situations, I hope my book and research will help them consider one of the most basic ways to make change, to subtract.” 

Here are few ways to add subtraction to your life. 

Recognize the Impulse to Add

Wanis says start by becoming aware of the natural desire to add more in hopes of making a situation better. 

“This is about breaking a habit. Start looking at things differently and thinking ‘If I just do nothing for a while and think about the situation, I’ll come up with the right solution,’” he says. 

Imagine Scenarios

Not only is it harder to think of subtraction as an option, Klotz says when a person does consider
it, emotions come into play. 

For instance, consider you have a closet full of shoes that needs addressing. 

“We may have an emotional attachment to those old running shoes that makes us choose against
subtracting even when we do manage to think of it,” Klotz says. 

One way to overcome this, he says, is to vividly imagine what you will gain by subtracting. 

“Once you have in your mind that clean closet, you will start growing your emotional attachment
to it (instead of those running shoes),” explains Klotz. 

Practice patience with Decisions

Wanis says original thinkers give themselves time to germinate new ideas and analyze them before coming up with answers. 

He teaches this approach in workshops for managing relationships. 

“If you are about to respond to someone in an intensely emotional situation, wait so you have time to think about it and come up with answer,” he says. 

This approach applies to all situations, he adds. 

“Stand back, don’t be impulsive, and take your time before making a decision. Ask yourself if you need to bring more or less and allow yourself to analyze and look at various solutions rather than responding quickly,” says Wanis. “Recognize that sometimes the most effective response is the simplest.” 

Implement Minimalist Strategies

Because minimalists tend to have subtraction down, Wanis says learning about their approach can bring new perspective. 

Widely recognized minimalist Joshua Becker states the meaning of minimalism on his blog. He writes “It means living with things you really need. It means removing anything that distracts us from living with intentionality and freedom.” 

According to a small study which explored the experiences of 10 people living a minimalistic lifestyle, all the participants indicated that practicing minimalism provides the following wellbeing benefits: 

  • Autonomy (freedom/liberation, aligning with values, authenticity)
  • Competence (feeling in control of environment, less stress and anxiety)
  • Mental space (saving mental energy, internal reflecting external)
  • Awareness (reflection, mindfulness, savoring)
  • Positive emotions (joy, peacefulness)

What This Means For You

While people tend to add rather than subtract when trying to resolve situations, finding ways to subtract can help you reach better outcomes.

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