Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 26;   June 26, 2024: Additive bias…or Not: I

Additive bias…or Not: I

by

When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot.
A well-festooned utility pole

A well-festooned utility pole. This sort of thing develops bit-by-bit, rather than by intention. Each maintenance team does what it's ordered to do. It isn't given the resources required to straighten out the accumulated mess.

Additive bias is a cognitive bias. It's the tendency to identify or favor approaches to problem solving that add components to an existing solution rather than approaches that reduce the number of components. For example, when rewriting a definition of the additive bias to enhance its clarity, we would tend to produce revisions that have more words than did the original version.

Experiments that demonstrate additive bias, and the cognitive science literature about additive bias, agree: what matters is how the number of components N in the unaltered system compares to the number of components N' in the altered system. [Adams 2021][Stewart 2021][Neroni 2024] Because of the additive bias, people tend to favor solutions in which N' is greater than N.

In artificial experiment conditions, we observe that when people alter an existing system to meet new requirements, they tend to favor alterations that increase the number of system components as compared to alterations that reduce the number of system components.

The real world

The artificial Although additive bias is a real phenomenon,
in the real world, there are many possible
alternative explanations for asset bloat
conditions of experiments leave little room for explanation of the results beyond the additive bias. I therefore have no doubt that it's a real effect. But in the conditions we find in the wild, there is an abundance of alternative explanations for the effects analogous to what we observe in the experiments that reveal an additive bias.

In the real world, we do observe a phenomenon we might call asset bloat — bloating of the assets that we subject to repeated incidents of maintenance or extension. And asset bloat could well be the result of additive bias. But are other explanations possible?

In what follows, I propose two possible phenomena that could lead to effects that would appear to be due to additive bias in a real-life situation, but which are unrelated to additive bias. Specifically, the situation is one in which a team has been tasked with extending the capabilities of a software system.

A capability extension scenario

The system in question is a portion of a familiar software product such as a word processor or spreadsheet application. The application has many commands, but in this scenario we are being asked to extend the capabilities of one class of these commands. We must do so in a way that avoids changing any existing capabilities. The task of the engineers is to add this capability to all commands that need it.

Two non-technical phenomena that can lead to asset bloat

Although additive bias can lead to asset bloat, other phenomena can do so as well. Let's begin with two effects that have roots in organizational politics.

As engineers go about their work of adding the new capability to the application, they have the usual technical concerns. The must identify what parts of the code need alteration, what parts need to be added, and what parts need to be removed. But in addition, there are nontechnical concerns that can be just as important, and which can affect the result in ways that can appear to be the result of additive bias. Here are examples of two such phenomena.

Rolling their own
When engineers identify an incumbent facility in the application that can provide support for what they're creating, they need not add to the system their own version of that facility. If they take that approach, they can save time and effort, and avoid adding components to the system. But they need assurance from the "owners" of that incumbent facility (a) that they can rely upon it and (b) that their intended use is and will be supported by the owners — that their use is consistent with the system architecture.
Sometimes, the owners do cooperate. They're willing to support this unintended use. But in other cases, the owners are unable to cooperate. They might have future plans that conflict with the use now being contemplated. The owners might not reject our engineers' request, because their plans aren't yet fully accepted by Governance, but they decline to support our engineers' request within the time window the engineers require. And so our engineers are compelled to "roll their own" version of what already exists. In this way, they build something that looks like the result of additive bias, but which is actually a result of unresolved political conflict.
Avoiding offense
In some cases, the new capability renders an incumbent capability unnecessary or duplicative. When this happens, responsible engineers would initiate a debate about the question of removing the incumbent capability. But if they know that advocates of the incumbent capability might take offense at such a debate, or if those advocates are politically powerful, the engineers are less likely to raise the issue.
The incumbent capability then remains in place. The end result might seem to be consistent with the result of an additive bias, but it is not. It's a result of politics.

Last words

Next time I'll examine two more mechanisms that can produce results consistent with additive bias. These mechanisms also appear to lead to asset bloat, but they actually arise from attempts to limit the total effort invested.  Additive bias…or Not: II Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Additive bias…or Not: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Adams 2021]
Gabrielle S. Adams, Benjamin A. Converse, Andrew H. Hales, and Leidy E. Klotz. "People systematically overlook subtractive changes," Nature 592:7853, (2021), pp. 258-261. Available here. Retrieved 4 June 2024. Back
[Stewart 2021]
Shea Stewart. "Overlooking Subtraction," University of Mississippi News 3842, A.pril 29, 2021. Available here. Retrieved 4 June 2024 Back
[Neroni 2024]
Maria Adriana Neroni, Nathan Crilly and Maria Antonella Brandimonte. "Unveiling the associative mechanisms underlying the additive bias: using an Implicit Association Test to gain insight into people's preference for additive actions," Manuscript, accepted version. Available here. Retrieved 4 June 2024 Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

The Lincoln Memorial at sunriseOrganizational Loss: Searching Behavior
When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
Flooding in Metarie, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
The Garden Tiger moth, Arctia cajaTelephonic Deceptions: I
People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's Part I of a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.
A cat sleeping on grassColumbo Tactics: I
When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo. Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.
Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control CenterEmbarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt.

See also Workplace Politics and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.