Addition by subtraction.  Less is more.  Remove barriers.   Mark Twain apologizing for the length of his letter, noting it would have been shorter if he had more time.

All these expressions can’t hold a candle to our apparent bias towards addition over subtraction.  “Engagement” is seen as both positive and additive to whatever you’re already sending.

Does your welcome journey that you just developed, are developing or planning to develop (admit it, it’s one of those three) going to have subtraction as the starting point?  Not likely.

Humans are wired for addition even though it doesn’t always or even regularly lead to better.   There are cognitive, cultural and socio-ecological reasons for this.  It’s cognitively easier to add stuff to a journey or piece of copy since subtracting requires fully processing all that is already there.

Culture may, over time, have come to associate “more” and “higher” with “positive” and “better”.  And maybe folks are unlikely to subtract because of our preference for status quo works against deleting what’s already there.  Heck, we call it our “control” we love the status quo so much.  And maybe adding has more possibilities since subtracting is limited by what’s already there.

Consider this novel experiment.  Participants were given a Lego structure with the task of adding a brick to the top without having the roof fall on the action figure.  Participants were shown that placing the brick on the “default” construction (pictured below) with only a support in one corner (think chair with one leg) would cause the roof to fall on the action figure.

(Note: I had to superimpose the action figure because they used a trademarked character and couldn’t show it in the published research report for fear of trademark violation – gotta love our litigious society).

Participants that built a stable roof that would support a brick without falling on our action figure received a $1.00 as reward.

There were two test conditions, one that did not prime or reference subtracting pieces and the other that not only referenced it in the instruction (i.e. you can add or subtract pieces) but financially incentivized subtracting by charging people $.10 for every piece they added while subtracting pieces was free.


With no specific reference to subtracting or adding pieces, 40% solved this puzzle and got their $1 by simply removing the one piece in the corner.  When the idea of subtracting was primed and given further financial incentive the “remove a piece as solution” crowd grew to 60%.   On the one hand, priming works.  On the other, the bias towards adding is so strong that 40% still elected to add pieces to the other corners.

How to use this in our world?

Cue subtraction in your planning or reviewing exercises.  Force the subtraction exercise by requiring removal of certain fields on your form, words on your letter, touchpoints in your journey.   Then require yourself to state a rationale and reason for adding.  What evidence do you have that this addition will add value for the supporter?






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