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The Human Mind Adds Better Than It Subtracts

Getting control of the tendency might be a key to better decision-making skills, researchers say

When trying to solve a problem, a recent study showed that it is much easier for us to add things than to subtract them:

In a new paper featured on the cover of Nature, University of Virginia researchers explain why people rarely look at a situation, object or idea that needs improving — in all kinds of contexts — and think to remove something as a solution. Instead, we almost always add some element, whether it helps or not.

Jennifer McManamay/University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, “Why our brains miss opportunities to improve through subtraction” at ScienceDaily The paper is closed access.

In a sense, we all know this. When we want to make something look better, we much more easily think of something we can add than something we can take away. Perhaps we want to add another picture to the living room wall to create a greater effect. But maybe removing one would draw more attention to the remaining pictures. From a series of observational studies and experiments, the researchers concluded that this is a normal human tendency:

“Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort,” Converse said. “Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all.”

University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, “Why our brains miss opportunities to improve through subtraction” at ScienceDaily The paper is closed access.

The main outcome, of course, is clutter at home, tedious lectures and essays at school, and bureaucracy in the workplace.

One of the paper’s authors, Leidy Klotz, is also the author of just-published Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less (2021), which explores the subject in more detail.

Another author offers a warning:

“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 may get stronger and stronger, and in the long run, we end up missing out on many opportunities to improve the world by subtraction.”

University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, “Why our brains miss opportunities to improve through subtraction” at ScienceDaily The paper is closed access.

Perhaps that is one reason that clutter, tedium, and bureaucracy tend to creep back if we do not keep pruning them.

Note: The image of wooden blocks is courtesy © tadamichi / stock.adobe.com


You may also wish to read: Babies can understand whole sentences before they can speak. Before uttering their first word, a new study suggests, children can understand what groups of words mean together. The new findings challenge the idea that children progress from words to phrases to sentences and provide insight into second language learning.


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The Human Mind Adds Better Than It Subtracts