Adding is Favoured over Subtracting in Problem Solving
— April 7, 2021
By Tom Meyvis and Heeyoung Yoon
For example, Adams and colleagues analysed archival data and observed that, when an incoming university president requested suggestions for changes that would allow the university to better serve its students and community, only 11% of the responses involved removing an existing regulation, practice or programme. Similarly, when the authors asked study participants to make a 10 × 10 grid of green and white boxes symmetrical, participants often added green boxes to the emptier half of the grid rather than removing them from the fuller half, even when doing the latter would have been more efficient.
Adams et al. demonstrated that the reason their participants offered so few subtractive solutions is not because they didn’t recognize the value of those solutions, but because they failed to consider them. Indeed, when instructions explicitly mentioned the possibility of subtractive solutions, or when participants had more opportunity to think or practise, the likelihood of offering subtractive solutions increased. It thus seems that people are prone to apply a ‘what can we add here?’ heuristic (a default strategy to simplify and speed up decision-making). This heuristic can be overcome by exerting extra cognitive effort to consider other, less-intuitive solutions.
Read the full Nature article
Tom Meyvis is a Professor of Marketing and Merchants’ Council Professor of Retail Management and Consumer Behavior at NYU Stern. Heeyoung Yoon is a PhD student at NYU Stern.