I’ve heard it said that addition is easier to learn than subtraction. My experience this past year helping my youngest with kindergarten math affirms this idea. For those virtual subtraction assignments, she insisted, “I just can’t do it, Daddy!” I was also reminded of division with my older girls, which for them was more difficult than multiplication. Perhaps this is why after counting, math education tackles addition before subtraction and, a few years later, multiplication before division.
New research suggests a cognitive bias may account for why subtraction can be difficult for us, even well outside the domain of mathematics. We are really good at adding things, but often miss the benefits of removing them. In this there appears to be some convergence between science and Scripture.
It can be really hard for us to see when less is more.
Subtraction, Not Addition
Recently Nature published new behavioral science research that suggests humans have a pretty strong cognitive bias towards addition (summarized beautifully in this six-minute video). Using LEGO bricks and gridlike patterns, researchers asked people to find solutions to simple puzzles in the fewest number of steps possible. In each instance, the simplest solution was to remove a brick or delete a few cells on the grid. Instead, more often than not, participants would add pieces, unable to see the simplicity of subtracting.
When researchers added a second task—what is called “cognitive load”—which forced subjects to split their focus, they were even more likely to add than subtract. However, when primed in a way that suggested there was no penalty for subtraction, folks were more likely to find the simplest solution.
Fascinating, right? My first thought was that this video should be required watching for all government employees who work on tax codes. Then I began to think about my own life and the church. How often do we try to solve problems and meet various needs by adding more to our busy lives and ministries rather than removing things? Do we really need to buy this or that or squeeze something new into our regular routine? Is another committee or new Sunday program really necessary?
- Here, along with the Nature video, is the journal’s non-academic summary.
- Other publications, including Scientific American, have highlighted this research.
- The disciplined pursuit of less makes sense in business (and maybe also in the church).
- Is less actually more even with sacred traditions like youth Sunday school?
- One of Greg’s books brings this concept to business (church or otherwise) and to practicing Sabbath.
- Remember the Simple Church movement a few years back?
Less Is More
Nature titled their video summary of this research, “Less is More.” It is in this consideration of less and more that I find connections to Scripture.
How often does God do more with less? Think of Jesus feeding thousands with just five loaves and two fish. Or how the church that today is a global movement of a couple billion people began with twelve disciples.
God will chase after the one lost sheep at the expense of the flock. Jesus will heal the one in the crowd who reaches out to him. In the calculus of the kingdom, the widow’s two coins are more than the rich person’s larger gifts.
The “least of these” is also a deeply biblical concept. Those who are low, weak, or humble are to be raised up in favor with God, and should be fed, clothed, and healed. The high, the strong, and the mighty will be brought low.
There are many examples of the ways less is more in regard to our lifestyles. We are to give away our belongings rather than store up treasures here on earth. We are to avoid too many words. We are to fast and not be gluttonous.
All these biblical teachings suggest that divine mathematics differ from human propensities. We add, accumulate, and strive for multiples and multitudes. The newly discovered cognitive bias shows that even our minds favor solutions that add over those that subtract. But this is only part of the picture—for many of us, accumulation is easier than giving things away. It is no stretch to see how all this increase leads to the crises we face with materialism (of the consumer variety) and creation care.
Remember though that one way people found subtraction to be the simpler solution—removing one LEGO brick or deleting a few grid cells to gain symmetry—was by being prompted to realize that taking away is OK. Likewise, every time the church teaches or preaches one of these texts about less being more, we are reminded that sometimes, maybe even often, the best solution comes when we subtract rather than add.
At home, at work, or in church, how can we avoid unending addition that threatens to overwhelm our lives, our communities, and our planet? How can we benefit from the efficiency and simplicity of subtraction? Perhaps this is a silver lining in the forced simplicity of this lingering pandemic. It most certainly is a place where the church’s teachings meet with science and can remind us that, to paraphrase the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” a loss may actually be our richest gain.