Why is everything so darned complicated? And I really mean everything: our taxes, schedules, bureaucracies, machines, algorithms, org charts, our school and welfare and healthcare systems, you name it.
Even — and I say this as an oft culpable columnist — our diction. "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out," George Orwell stipulated in one of his rules of writing. I'm tempted to edit him thus: If it is possible to cut a word [out], [always] cut it [out].
The simplicity Orwell yearned for is synonymous with clarity, elegance, efficiency and integrity. It's an ideal a lot of us subscribe to in theory but keep violating in practice. A lamentable secret of the universe seems to be that it takes enormous effort to simplify, but no effort at all to do the opposite. Put differently, it's easier to add things, even unnecessary ones, than to subtract.
That's the insight of a new paper published in Nature and authored by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, Andrew Hales and Leidy Klotz, who hail from various faculties at the University of Virginia. In eight observational studies and experiments, they found that people systematically overlook opportunities to improve things by subtracting and default instead to adding.
For example, look at this little storm trooper seeking shelter under a Lego roof. A heavy masonry brick is about to land on the platform right above the poor guy's head. Our job is to renovate the structure so that it doesn't cave in on him, for which we get $1. We can take away Legos or add them from a pile, but each extra brick costs 10 cents.
The simplest and most elegant solution — and by design also the most profitable, netting the whole dollar — is to remove the one brick supporting the roof, so that the platform sits flush on the remaining base. But 59% of participants chose instead to add Legos — placing supports in the three other corners of the base, for instance.
So it went in one experiment after another, whether people were asked to improve the design of a mini-golf hole, a travel itinerary or an essay (Orwell must be turning in his grave). By huge majorities, participants added and rarely subtracted. Asked to edit their own essay, for instance, 80% padded verbiage, only 16% cut. Told to make the image below on the left symmetrical, most people added three shapes rather than taking away one, as shown.
The good news is that the researchers were able to nudge more people in the control groups to consider subtractions by providing cues. In the Lego experiment, for example, they told some people not only that adding pieces costs 10 cents each but also that "removing pieces is free." This wasn't new information. But it appeared to prime the participants' brains to consider other options.
The more intriguing insight was that people became less likely to consider subtraction the more they felt "cognitive load." This is basically brain strain, as when we're distracted by other tasks. (This is why we should never fiddle with our phones while driving.)
Spotting solutions that are simple and elegant, in other words, requires mental effort or what the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls slow as opposed to fast thinking. It's an idea physicists might recognize in the second law of thermodynamics. One form of it says that any system will go from order to disorder, unless you add energy. In the same way, we humans tend to complicate things unless we make an effort not to.
But when we do make that effort, the rewards can be sublime. Look at the two works of art in the picture all the way above. They're by Brancusi, my favorite sculptor. He liked to take ordinary things — in this case, birds — and strip them down to their essentials. The result was beauty.
Or think of how you taught your kids to ride a bike. In my childhood, parents added something clunky, training wheels. These days, we subtract things — pedals and chains — and call the result balance bikes. Our children learn faster, and have more fun.
If you want a tech example, recall Steve Jobs in his heyday at Apple, when he relentlessly nixed dongles, disc drives, features and other whatchamacallits, even as Microsoft and other rivals kept sinking deeper into their kludges. Or consider Marie Kondo, who's built a brand out of helping people unclutter their own homes.
Then dare to dream what thoughtful subtraction could do for the real mother lodes of self-propagating complexity — the U.S. tax code springs to mind, or the European Union's fiscal rules. We can simplify our lives, but we have to put in the work. That's what the philosopher Blaise Pascal captured when he apologized, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."