Adding to Extinction

When trying to solve a problem involving patterns, people think of adding but not subtracting – a bias with wide-ranging implications.

Addition has an appeal to the mind that subtraction lacks. “People consistently consider changes that add components over those that subtract them,” note business analysts Tom Meyvis and Heeyoung Yoon. This owes to the mind’s heuristic inclination to construction over more careful analysis which may show subtractive decomposition offers a better solution.

Sunk-cost bias leads away from subtraction. People wrongly think of nonrecoverable expenses, including time, as an investment. This sunk-cost bias has people shy from removing what exists.

Further, there is the associative bias of scarcity. Hoarding is common at just the mention of the possibility of a shortage. Wealth is an accumulation. People want more, not less.

Social reasons also work against subtraction. People might assume that existing features are there for a reason, and so look for additions that might be more effective.

Another detraction of subtractive solutions is they are less likely to be appreciated. Organizational and political leaders abhor cutting fat. “If you add more people and more dollars, you won’t make any enemies, you’ll just make friends,” observes decision analyst Hal Arkes. “Subtraction has serious downsides.”

People often only think of subtracting when reminded of it as a possibility. “When people try to make something better, they don’t think that they can remove or subtract unless they are somehow prompted to do so,” says American behavioral scientist Gabrielle Adams. Providing irrelevant information about a problem decreases the likelihood that subtraction will be considered.

“We’re missing an entire class of solutions,” remarks behavioral scientist Benjamin Converse.

Humanity is hurtling toward self-extinction before the end of the century. It is an additive problem: too many people; too many roads and vehicles; too much production, especially of toxic chemicals such as plastics. Just like subtraction, this cumulative inevitability is more readily met with hopeful denial than impartial analysis.

US president Jimmy Carter was ridiculed, and eventually thrown out of office, for suggesting that people conserve energy during the 1978-1979 oil crisis – which, not incidentally, did not result in an oil shortage. Americans just wanted cheap gas again.

The only possible solution to avert self-extinction is less – a wholesale conservation that is wholly unpalatable.

For one, abandoning growth for sustainability would require a reckoning of equity. Besides the rape of Nature, capitalism relies upon inequality to fuel its unsustainable engine: accumulation of capital in a relative few hands, at the sufferance of the majority.

Real socialism – true equality – has never happened at the societal level in all of history. While its morality may be admirable, the logistics of it are less imaginable than conservation.

Those in power would never agree to sustainable regime. And that power has an iron grip – as world populations have gotten a recent taste of, with pandemic restrictions which only impoverish while a virus laughs its way among us.

Democracy is a emotional steam valve for the rubes; a periodic venting run by the rich.

Not that it takes much persuasion. The common people live such hardscrabble lives that conservatism comes naturally – to preserve what little one has. Visions of revolution are for those with nothing to lose.

More and less materially are not a yin and yang. Capitalism and species survival cannot coexist. The revolution needed for humanity to endure is not just inconvenient, it barely comes to mind.

Subtraction just doesn’t add up. Even if the consequence is the end of the world.


Gabrielle S. Adams et al, “People systematically overlook subtractive changes,” Nature (7 April 2021).

Tom Meyvis & Heeyoung Yoon, “Adding is favoured over subtracting in problem solving,” Nature (7 April 2021).

Sujata Gupta, “People add by default even when subtraction makes more sense,” Science News (7 April 2021).