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New research seems to point to a human tendency to “gild the lily” as an underlying reason for why many of us struggle with overwhelming schedules, why red tape begets more red tape, and perhaps even why the planet’s resources are being depleted so quickly.  The phrase gilding the lily refers to the addition of an unneeded enhancement and apparently humans have a tendency always to add rather than subtract. The study explains that, in looking any situation or problem, people often fail to consider possible solutions that involve subtracting or removing something and are more inclined to add something than subtract something even when it isn’t productive.

Benjamin Converse, one of the researchers and an associate professor at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, explains, “Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort.”

The researchers hypothesize that the more we look for additive ideas, the more this type of idea is cognitive available. This would mean that specific training in subtraction thinking might be necessary to counterbalance the tendency.

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