From designing a home to editing text, sometimes less is more

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Imagine that you are faced with this problem. You want to build a house in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where winter temperatures sometimes drop as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Your house can only use renewable energy, and it must cost less to build than a house powered by fossil fuels. Oh, and it must have a room warm enough to grow bananas all year round.

Most people would start thinking about solutions by looking for the necessary materials, but not Amory Lovins, the famous energy efficiency advocate. Lovins found a counter-intuitive answer to his indoor farming needs. He chose not to add any new design features, but rather to omit some of those that would be found in any standard architectural plan.

Lovins was an outlier. My fellow psychologists and I have found through dozens of studies that people’s first instinct when asked to do something like start a zero-carbon banana farm is to add to what’s “already there.” . It seems that we are programmed to add rather than subtract.

In one of our studies, for example, we asked participants to imagine themselves as the assistant manager of a miniature golf course. They were shown an overhead view of one of the holes on the course and asked to “make a list of all the different ways to improve the hole without spending a ton of money”.

Our miniature golf hole could be improved by subtraction. A hypothetical assistant manager who wanted to make the hole more difficult could remove the corner bumper that golfers can use to go around in one shot. An assistant manager who wanted to make the hole easier could remove the grit trap. Note that subtractive modifications would, on the whole, better satisfy the cost-saving instructions.

Study participants listed their ideas for ways to improve the hole, which we then categorized as additive (“putting a windmill in the fairway”), subtractive (“removing the sand trap”) or neither (“changing hole and tee locations”). As with the other scenarios my colleagues and I investigated – whether writing, planning, building with Legos, or creating symmetrical patterns from random grids on a computer screen – few participants chose subtraction as a solution. Of the 338 people tested with these simple instructions, only 90 provided a single subtractive idea in their list of all possible improvements to the miniature golf hole. On the other hand, additive solutions abounded.

Systematically neglecting a fundamental way of bringing about change is inherently troublesome in our approach to problem solving. By neglecting subtraction, we miss the means to make our lives more fulfilling, our institutions more efficient, and our planet more livable. We accumulate to-dos when we really need stop-doings. We create incentives for good behavior, but we don’t get rid of barriers, and we overlook ways to create inland banana farms in the Rocky Mountains cheaply and without using fossil fuels.

Well, at least most of us do. Back to Amory Lovins. He’s a trailblazing designer who’s won nearly every major environmental award, a spot on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list, and (unbeknownst to him at the time) a spot on my personal Mount Rushmore of intellectual influencers. . So when Lovins emailed to “send cheers” for my group’s work on subtraction and sharing his own real-life example of the power to withdraw, I only wondered which of his brilliant designs he would choose.

To settle in the Rockies, Lovins came up with a number of additive ideas. He affixed solar panels to capture the sun’s energy and added the best insulation to separate the warm air inside from the wind and the cold air outside. He added efficient windows to allow the banana trees access to light but not to the cold. For engineers reading, yes, Lovins has added special ventilation heat recovery systems. Combined, features such as these satisfied the inner-banana-farm and fossil-fuel-free parts of the puzzle.

If Lovins had stopped there, he would have ended up with a house that would cost more to build, not less. To control expenses, he realized that all the extra efficiency allows the house to be heated entirely by the sun – through the windows, plus the heat from lights and appliances (themselves very efficient) , body heat, and maybe “a 50-watt dog. That meant Lovins could do more than just run the mechanical heating system on renewable energy. He could get rid of it altogether. The efficiency that has eliminated the heating system would be prepaid by eliminating the heating system. Lovins’ subtractive ideas weren’t just for his home. They’ve saved costs and improved performance all over the world. Lovins’ approach of adding and subtracting features has inspired hundreds of thousands of “passive houses” like this, mostly in Europe.

How then can the rest of us take these examples and tap into the untapped power of subtraction on a regular basis? Or, as Lovins had asked over email, “How can we overcome and remedy the innate and trained bias towards additive solutions?”

Zoom conference call with Lovins, with the banana plantation in the background, we discussed what I had learned during my research. My studies had identified a new part of the problem, and my new book To subtract was a years-long scientific view of what we can do about it. On the one hand, people can recognize the value of subtraction if they are made aware of the opportunity. In some of our studies, participants were randomly assigned to receive cues indicating that subtraction was an option. In the mini-golf setup, for example, the unmarked instructions mentioned neither addition nor subtraction, whereas the marked instructions reminded participants of both: “Keep in mind that you can potentially add things to the hole and remove them.” This simple directive more than doubled the assistant managers’ subtraction rates. And while the signal also mentioned addition, it did not change the rate of this type of alteration.

Because the clue increased subtraction but not addition, we can assume that people were already considering additive solutions, whereas the subtractive part of the clue evoked new possibilities. This finding suggests that part of the reason we so often choose to add is that we don’t even consider subtraction. For the discussion with Lovins, this finding suggested a simple remedy. To find solutions that involve subtraction, we need clues.

“Omit unnecessary words” is a signal for writing Style elements. “Throw away anything that doesn’t spark joy” is a Marie Kondo closet clue. “Subtracting things everyday” is a wisdom quest clue of Lao Tzu. To share his design wisdom, Lovins has developed principles, some of which allude to removal. Principle 10 is to “start from a clean sheet”, which could lead us to question the need for a heating system. Principle 13 is to “seek radical simplicity”, which reminds us to remove rooms, perhaps even heating systems, that become unnecessary. And to build a profitable inland banana farm in the Rocky Mountains, it may help to consider Principle 14: “Tunnel Through the Cost Barrier,” which refers to how Lovins continued to add measures of Slightly more expensive efficiencies: ‘tunneling through’ until it can subtract the really expensive heating system.

Zooming in with me, Lovins thought his design principles could be more explicit in subtraction. He might modify the principles themselves or rearrange them to suggest subtraction even before addition. Whatever he decides to do, I will remember the last line of his e-mail as a boilerplate signal: “Go ahead, be fruitful, and to subtract!”

This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.


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