Sunday SciKu | Addition by Subtraction

Cognitive biases are always interesting because understanding them is such an important aspect of critical thinking. We can only see the world through layers of filters, and it’s impossible to understand anything without adjusting for them.

This week, researchers at the University of Virginia published work on a bias I’d never heard of before—I don’t think there’s even a name for it yet, but maybe it will be called “additional bias”? When problem solving, it turns out we’re much more drawn to solutions utilizing addition rather than subtraction.

For example, training wheels have been added to bicycles as a way to teach kids how to balance. It took decades for us to realize that a better solution is just to take the peddles off, and let them practice on a simple “balance bike.”

In the study, participants were given LEGO problems that could be solved either by adding more blocks or removing some of them. Almost invariably, people default to adding more blocks even in scenarios where blocks cost money to buy. It seems as if our minds generate additive solutions more readily than solutions through subtraction—and because we tend to stop at the first working solution we find, that’s what we end up going with.

The consequences of additional bias are wide-ranging in engineering and ecology, but also apply to daily life. Just ask Marie Kondo.


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