People have a tendency to add stuff to make something better even when subtraction makes more sense

Engineers and product designers refer to "feature creep," the ongoing addition of new features or options to "improve" something when it would often be better to be subtractive with any changes. According to a new study by University of Virginia behavioral scientist Benjamin Converse and his colleagues, we only consider subtractive changes when we're reminded to do so. The researchers ran a series of different experiments, from asking participants to solve pen-and-paper puzzles all the way to analyzing how individuals go about improving the stability of a Lego structure. From the scientific paper:

People typically consider a limited number of promising ideas in order to manage the cognitive burden of searching through all possible ideas, but this can lead them to accept adequate solutions without considering potentially superior alternatives. Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. Across eight experiments, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes when the task did not (versus did) cue them to consider subtraction, when they had only one opportunity (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy or when they were under a higher (versus lower) cognitive load. Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.


cropped image: Guma89 (CC BY-SA 3.0)