mind over matter,

The Additive Cognitive Bias

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People are surprisingly good at adding to rather than subtracting away.

Think about it. How often do you go about throwing away what you have and decluttering vs. how often you decide to buy stuff?

This tendency to add to is a cognitive bias that I only recently came to know.

In an interesting article on Scientific American, the author says:

Leidy Klotz, an engineer at the University of Virginia, noticed that minimalist designs, in which elements are removed from an existing model, were uncommon. So he reached out to Gabrielle Adams, a social psychologist at the university, to try to figure out why this was the case. The two researchers hypothesized that there might be a psychological explanation: when faced with a problem, people tend to select solutions that involve adding new elements rather than taking existing components away.

That’s remarkable. Here are some examples:

  1. (from the study/article) The balance bike is a fantastic invention. For several decades we taught our kids how to ride bicycles with bicycles equipped with training wheels. Only recently the balance bikes have become quite a thing. For all this time, we have had an inelegant solution (adding training wheels) and overlooked an elegant solution (subtract the pedals out).
Balance bike
Photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash
  1. (from the study) When completing a lego brick puzzle, where a bridge was wobbly, most participants decided to add more blocks rather than remove (and interestingly, a child removed a block).

  2. (from the study) In a computer puzzle where they had to make a pattern symmetrical, most people chose to add tiles rather than remove them (which would have required fewer clicks).

  3. I am also reminded of Braess’s paradox where adding one or more roads could make the traffic much worse.

If you have read Thinking Fast and Slow, you know about mental heuristics — the shortcuts that we take when thinking.

So this tendency to add to things is a cognitive bias and a type of heuristic that we use and has only recently been discovered.

Another remarkable finding is that when the study participants were under high cognitive load or were distracted, they could use subtractive skills more often.

Let’s watch out for additive cognitive bias next time we think of buying something or when solving problems. Think about it the next time you want to add more features to your code, think about it when you are thinking more things your team should do. Without subtracing away, you can’t get to what Einstein said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”