SCHOOL TAUGHT US the correct answer usually requires filling in the blanks, adding information, writing a longer report, citing more references… More more more. Keep piling it on. It’s no wonder then, as behavioral scientists have discovered, most people attempt to solve life’s problems by adding something to the situation. They default to getting a tool, getting a gizmo, getting more data, creating another processes, putting additional people on the project… More more more. More is better, right?

Not always. Sometimes the answer is to subtract something. Sometimes it makes more sense. Sometimes it’s easier. Simplify rather than complicate.

Gabrielle Adams and Benjamin Converse of the University of Virginia conducted a series of experiments. For example, a test presented participants with simple grid diagrams on a computer. The instructions were to make the diagrams symmetrical on both the X and Y axes by clicking squares to turn them on or off. The overwhelming majority chose to add squares.

“When people try to make something better … they don’t think that they can remove or subtract unless they are somehow prompted to do so,” said Adams. Even when prompted, the majority still defaulted to adding rather than subtracting. 

“Thinking in pluses instead of minuses could well contribute to modern-day excesses such as cluttered homes, institutional red tape and even an overburdened planet,” said Converse. “We’re missing an entire class of solutions.”

Are you a subtractor?

We vehicle dwellers are, by necessity, subtractors when it comes to material goods. We can’t take it all with us. But subtracting doesn’t need to stop with downsizing. We can also apply it to problem solving, or simply the way we go through each day. Remember this article about more complex plans being less likely to succeed? When faced with a problem, a task, a decision, it might be best to step back and ask, “Does this situation require something more, or something less?” You might be surprised by the answer.