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Why We Struggle With Subtraction and Decluttering

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

By Jamie Li

February 26, 2022


[Photo credit: ScienceNews]

When deciding whether or not to keep something, Marie Kondo once said to ask if that item sparks joy. With the rise of minimalism, you may have looked around and realized how much stuff has accumulated. You may wonder why your drawers are overflowing with junk you never use, or your desk is a cluttered nightmare. Turns out, science has an answer for that.

A study in Nature asked 1,585 participants to solve puzzles either adding or subtracting things. For example, one puzzle had a grid with patterns. Participants needed to assemble a symmetrical design by adding or removing squares. Out of 94 participants, 73 opted to add, 18 subtracted, and three adjusted the original pattern. In this case, the vast majority chose to add. Participants also improved essays, recipes and travel itineraries. Again, people were more likely to add instead of take away.

The team believes that adding is the default and that many people fail to consider subtraction. To challenge people to subtract, the team created experiments that involved an incentive to remove. The experiment used a lego structure with a figurine underneath a platform supported by a block. The researchers asked participants to stabilize the platform by adding or taking away blocks. The team explained to half the participants that they would earn $1 for completing the task and that each piece of Lego used costs ten cents. 40 out of 98 participants removed the block to have the platform rest on the sturdier tower. The other half of the participants were given a further nudge. The researchers also said that removing pieces is free and costs nothing. 66 out of 99 participants removed the block in this group. Similar to how an editor will remind an author to remove when they would forget to, the extra prompt from the researchers produces more subtractive solutions.

[Photo credit: CBC]

So, what does this say about humans as a whole? Choosing to add instead of subtracting explains the clutter in homes and annoying red tape within systems. Moreover, combatting this additive mindset can overcome more prominent issues such as climate change and limiting our carbon footprint. These issues are tied to the consumption of resources. Therefore, changing our mindset to focus on subtraction may help with the overconsumption that contributes to global warming.

Research from Nature demonstrates that most people are predisposed to add, even when subtracting is the better option. Attempting minimalism or struggling to tidy can be a painful and arduous process. At the very least, next time you attempt to clean out a messy bag or an overflowing drawer, you can partially deflect blame onto human psychology.


Adams, Gabrielle S., et al. “People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes.” Nature, vol.

592, no. 7853, 7 Apr. 2021, pp. 258–261.,

Goodall, Reece. “Why Our Brains Prefer Addition to Subtraction.” The Boar, 27 May 2021,

Goodyear, Sheena. “When Solving Life's Problems, People Tend to Add Even When It's Easier

to Subtract: Study | CBC Radio.” CBCnews, CBC, 8 Apr. 2021,



Gupta, Sujata. “People Add by Default Even When Subtraction Makes More Sense.” Science

News, Society for Science, 7 Apr. 2021,

“Less is more: Why our brains struggle to subtract.” YouTube, uploaded by nature video, 7 Apr.


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