Friday, April 23

People are bad at spotting simple solutions to problems


A test using Lego found people were likely to overlook simple solutions

Niels Quist/Alamy

Leonardo da Vinci said that a poet recognises perfection when there is nothing left to remove. In other words, less is more. But when solving problems, people tend to think the other way, adding elements rather than removing them.

Gabrielle Adams at the University of Virginia and colleagues asked people to complete several tasks where solutions involved either adding or subtracting parts. All of the experiments were designed so that subtraction would be one of the most efficient options.

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In one, around 200 people had to alter a Lego building to support a weight in order to gain a $1 bonus. The roof of the building was balancing precariously on just one support. A solution would be to add several bricks to better support the roof, which they were told would cost 10 cents each.

Another way of shoring up the structure was to simply remove one brick. Only 41 per cent of the control group opted to remove a brick, but when another group was prompted that removing bricks incurred no cost, this rose to 61 per cent. The team didn’t collect any demographic data for this part of the test.

In another task, around 300 people had to make a grid of 100 squares symmetrical by either adding or removing green tiles. When asked to take the test with no practice, only 49 per cent of people opted to remove tiles, but when given three practice runs before taking the test, this rose to 63 per cent. In this test, just over 40 per cent of participants were women.

During the research, the team spoke to a company with a newly appointed leader who asked staff for improvement suggestions. For every idea to remove a policy or rule, the leader received eight to add one.

In a pre-prepared Q&A, Adams said that balance bikes are a great example of the subtractive approach. “These are kids’ bikes without the pedals or the chain. Most people who have seen a toddler zipping down the street on a balance bike instantly recognise that subtractive invention as superior to the clunky additive change of training wheels.”

She said that this tendency to add complexity may cause us to miss potentially superior options and designs. “Addition may be culturally valued. It’s easier to demonstrate your contribution with an addition than a subtraction, and additions might get more praise.”

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03380-y

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