When it comes to improving objects, ideas or situations, such as with home upgrades or recipes, people tend to add to their workload rather than subtract when faced with a variety of improvement problems.
An exploration of that tendency is the subject of a new Nature study from a group of psychology researchers that includes a University of Mississippi psychology professor.
People’s disposition “to overlook subtraction may be implicated in a variety of costly modern trends, including overburdened minds and schedules, increasing red tape in institutions and humanity’s encroachment on the safe operating conditions for life on Earth,” the researchers wrote.
“We began our research by noticing that people have a strong and robust tendency to improve things by adding,” said co-author Andrew Hales, an assistant professor of psychology at UM who specializes in social psychology. “Why might that be the case? Maybe people think of subtractive ideas, but decide not to go with them, or they may not even think of subtraction in the first place.”
Titled “People systematically overlook subtractive changes,” the study involved 1,153 participants performing eight improvement problem experiments in which solutions involving subtraction were preferable.
Some of the experiments involved having participants stabilize a Lego structure, improve a miniature golf course and transform a digital grid pattern.
“We found that people were more likely to subtract under conditions that allow them to consider all possible options: when they have a chance to generate more possible solutions, when they are reminded that subtraction is an option and when they are free from distraction so they can focus completely on the task at hand,” Hales said.
“It’s not that subtraction is always better, but it does seem to be a problem that people systematically overlook subtraction as an option.”
In a world where reminders such as “less is more” and “remove barriers” are constant prompts, the study was inspired by the apparent need for subtractive counseling. The reminders seem to presume that people who are searching for transformations will otherwise overlook or undervalue subtraction as a way to improve objects, ideas or situations.
People who default to adding rather than subtracting when making transformations may be missing opportunities to make their lives more fulfilling, their institutions more effective and their planet more livable.
“Importantly, people are more likely to subtract if the task is set up in a way that slows them down and encourages them to consider alternatives,” Hales said. “People identify superior subtractive solutions more when they are less distracted, when they have more chances to practice generating solutions and when they are reminded that subtraction is an option.”
Joining Hales on the study were former colleagues from the University of Virginia, where Hales worked as a postdoctoral researcher before joining the Ole Miss faculty in 2020. The other authors are Gabrielle Adams and Benjamin Converse, both assistant professors in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and Leidy Klotz, Copenhaver associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“This work began with insights from my collaborators in public policy, psychology and engineering, who noticed that there is untapped potential for making improvements through subtraction rather than addition,” said Hales, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Purdue University in 2017.
“The fact that people seem to default to improving things by adding to them motivated our research. My background in experimental psychology enabled me to contribute especially to the design and testing of hypotheses in this program of research.”
The paper represents years of cross-disciplinary collaboration, Hales said.
“Having an interdisciplinary team greatly enhanced this research,” he said. “Different perspectives allowed us to address research questions in a way that would be broadly interesting and applicable. Hopefully, a result will be that more people who learn about this research will become more mindful of the potential for subtractive improvement.”
The next step for the group of researchers is developing the practical implications of the research and extending it into systems and organizations.
Primarily a social psychologist who is fascinated by all aspects of social life and decision-making, Hales’ research focuses on the causes and consequences of social ostracism and social influence.
Hales’ research advances the Department of Psychology‘s mission to be a leading contributor to the field of psychology and to enhance the human experience through a commitment to excellence in research, teaching and mentoring in an open and inclusive environment.
“I am so pleased for Dr. Hales that this important work is being recognized through selection for publication in this very prestigious outlet,” said Rebekah Smith, chair and professor of psychology. “In addition, this brings positive attention to the department as a whole, which will support our future efforts at recruiting the very best doctoral students and excellent faculty, such as Dr. Hales.”
By Shea Stewart