Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy

Diana Kwon in Scientific American: “For generations, the standard way to learn how to ride a bicycle was with training wheels or a tricycle. But in recent years, many parents have opted to train their kids with balance bikes, pedalless two-wheelers that enable children to develop the coordination needed for bicycling—a skill that is not as easily acquired with an extra set of wheels.

Given the benefits of balance bikes, why did it take so long for them to replace training wheels? There are plenty of other examples in which overlooked solutions that involve subtraction turn out to be better alternatives. In some European cities, for example, urban planners have gotten rid of traffic lights and road signs to make streets safer—an idea that runs counter to conventional traffic design.

Leidy Klotz, an engineer at the University of Virginia, noticed that minimalist designs, in which elements are removed from an existing model, were uncommon. So he reached out to Gabrielle Adams, a social psychologist at the university, to try to figure out why this was the case. The two researchers hypothesized that there might be a psychological explanation: when faced with a problem, people tend to select solutions that involve adding new elements rather than taking existing components away….

These findings, which were published today in Nature, suggest that “additive solutions have sort of a privileged status—they tend to come to mind quickly and easily,” says Benjamin Converse, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the study. “Subtractive solutions are not necessarily harder to consider, but they take more effort to find.”…(More)”.