When Subtraction is a Plus

Some University of Virginia researchers have been getting attention recently for a series of studies that show when humans are asked to change something, their first instinct is to add to what already exists. They seldom think about improving something by removing unneeded components.

We see this, too. A bias for addition and against subtraction can get in the way of success.

Why else would someone named Alexander send us web development pitches written in Cyrillic? Because he didn’t subtract from a mailing list that should have targeted only those who could read Russian and who are in the market for web development services.

Why the infatuation with engaging social media influencers with the MOST followers, instead of those with fewer followers — ones who actually want to hear from you? Because our metric-centric business culture often puts value on “more.”

Why do some new businesses keep opening locations or product lines when they don’t have the resources to support them? Because our dopamine receptors thrill on addition.

More, indeed, is not always better. Eliminating clutter and unproductive work can make our lives better. But perhaps there’s a finer point to be made on the value of subtraction over addition. 

Perhaps the real problem isn’t simply “more” but what we might call the “mindless more” — adding things, not based on careful consideration, but only because we don’t have a better idea.

Often, according to the researchers, this happens when people make decisions in a rush. Variations on their experiments indicated that when subjects were given more time without distraction to solve a puzzle, they were more likely to recognize when the answer lay in subtraction.

It seems equally likely that, even when a challenge cries out for adding something — a new approach or a better tool — deciding with too little deliberation could lead not to the needed addition but to a useless one.

What if we took the most deliberative approach to communication?

Instead of saying everything we can think of, we would subtract from the list,  leaving a few messages that people can internalize and remember.

In a crisis, we would stick only to what we know, removing speculation that could come back to bite us.

We would put as much strategic thinking into our executive summaries as we do our 70-slide PowerPoints.

Our human tendency is to say too much, reach too far and add inconsequential tactics, just to show we’re running fast. Yet, in the end, taking time to think gives us a more certain path to the finish line.