In 1979, Daniel  Kahneman and Amos Tversky, in creating their Prospect Theory, developed the important cognitive bias concept of loss aversion. It is summed up in the saying “losses loom larger than gains.” That is, people are more willing to take risks to avoid a loss than to make a gain. In fact, they may work twice as hard to avoid the loss than they would to acquire the gain.  (Loss Aversion,

This cognitive bias came to mind when I  read an article in The Economist  entitled “Why  people forget that less is often more.”(April 17,2021 edition- Science and Technology section). Its thesis, based on recent research published in Nature, is that “when solving problems, people prefer adding things to getting rid of them.” (Id.) That is, “humans struggle with subtractive thinking”:

When asked to improve something-a Lego-brick structure, an essay, a golf course or a university- they tend to suggest adding new things rather than stripping back what is already there, even when additions lead to sub-par results. (Id.)

The research was conducted by Gabrielle Adams with colleagues at the University of Virginia involving everyday observations rather than any psychology. In one experiment, the participants were asked to alter a grid made of colored squares to make it symmetrical. Rather than removing squares, 78% of the participants chose to add squares. Similar experiments produced the same results: only 2-12% of the participants removed blocks rather than added them to form the shape requested by the researchers.

Indeed, this aversion to subtraction even showed up in writing: when requested to alter an essay, 16% deleted words while 80% added words.

Having established that people prefer to add rather than to subtract, the researchers wanted to figure out why. So, they conducted more studies in which the participants were rewarded for subtracting blocks from a Lego structure so that it would no longer be lopsided. Still, only 41% used subtracting Lego blocks (rather than adding them) to make the structure stable.

These studies led the researchers to believe that perhaps it is simply a question of default thinking: that people think about adding (rather than subtracting) as the default way to solve a problem.

While the researchers think this may be a new cognitive bias, my suspicion is that it relates back to loss aversion: people work harder to avoid a loss (subtracting a Lego block to make it more stable) than to acquire a gain (adding a Lego block to stabilize the structure).

This tendency that more is better plays out in negotiations. If only one option is available to settle a case, it may be difficult to settle. (Ex: pay me $100 now!) But, if the options are increased, then there is a greater chance to settle (Ex: pay me $10 now and $10/month for 9 months or pay me $25 now and $25/month for 3 months or pay me $20 now and $20/month for 4 months etc.)

So, while people may seem to make their lives more complicated by adding rather than subtracting, sometimes the preference for addition may actually enable them to have one less problem to deal with— by settling a matter using a variety of options.

… Just something to think about.


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