Subtraction’s Value

One way to think of a decision is to think of the ‘right’ answer. This has limits. ‘Right’ answers exist within conditional assumptions, and mostly in the mathematics and moral fields. Should I be honest with my partner? has a ‘right’ answer. What’s the optimal distance my 2017 Subaru Outback should follow this other vehicle given these LIDAR, radar, sonar, sonic readings? has a ‘right’ answer. Note, I have no idea how adaptive cruise control works but it is the best automotive technology of the last decade.

‘Right’ answers are limited because of all the conditionals. Self-driving cars are one example. It’s a math heavy domain, the cost and availability of technology (read: number collecting and computing) has fallen, and we’ve never had as many smart-focused-people or as many save-our-collective-butt-companies, and yet it feels slow. Why is self-driving so slow? The conditions! Snow, rain, city, country, semis, motorcycles, bright lights, night lights, desserts, animals, forests, and not least of all: other drivers.

To get the ‘right’ answer to a question like: should the car warn the driver and begin automatic braking? the system needs a pretty tight window of conditions. So if the ‘right’ answer is difficult to come by is there a better option? There might be.

Rory Sutherland’s work comes up a lot here because Rory Sutherland’s work brings up an important idea. Sutherland loves marketing because marketing deals with psychology which is a lot easier to change than the objective thing. Package delivery is an example. Tracking numbers, emails that note your package is on its way, and estimated delivery dates all deliver psychological value. Contrast this with getting a package faster: logistical value, which has a very real cost. It’s not that better package tracking is better than faster package delivery but that it delivers more value than it costs. It’s the same idea of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: what’s highly (or somewhat) valuable yet costs very little? Sutherland’s tool is psychology. Lewis highlights math. Let’s add another: subtraction.

“It’s an easy problem for a dad to fix, I grabbed a block to add to the shorter column but Ezra had removed a block from the shorter problem. Ezra is normally a horrible subtractor but he plays a lot of Legos and this was an instance where he stumbled upon subtraction.” – Leidy Klotz

Leidy knew how to fix his son’s Lego bridge. Add a block here —>. But Ezra had an idea too. Take a block away here —>.

Whether a situation’s ‘right’ answer is to add or remove is irrelevant – for now. What’s a better car: a Toyota or a Lexus? The question is which costs more?
It’s easy to add. We have a tendency to add. But adding probably costs more and when it’s a costlier implementation but only a marginally better outcome then the better choice might be to subtract.