principle of least effort

Fighting Against the Crowd

By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief

You may not even realize how often you default to taking the past of least effort or path of least resistance through your day—throughout your life. If the principle of least effort really is a motivating principle for human behavior in general, it might explain why so many people struggle to make positive life-changes that require hard effort. They don’t lack desire or motivation. Things like strength training actually combat a deeper issue in your psyche and in society.

Fighting Against the Crowd: Overcoming the Principle of Least Effort

The Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones’ Season 6 is one of the best onscreen battle scenes of all time. There’s a point near the end where Ramsay Bolton’s army forms a shield wall boxing in Jon Snow, his army, and his giant on three sides. The fourth side and only possible avenue of escape is a wall formed by a pile of bodies. There is no escape. The scene cuts to a bird’s-eye view of Jon Snow’s dire situation. It’s hopeless, it’s claustrophobic, and it’s terrifying. It’s also, of course, totally fake. 

More and more of what we see is. The software that helped create The Battle of the Bastards’ CGI armies was developed for the Lord of the Rings movies in 2001. Crowd simulation software had previously treated the crowd as a single unit with a collection of objectives. This would give the crowd a uniform movement, but it wouldn’t act or interact with its surroundings in realistic ways. If you want a crowd to look like a real crowd and to interact realistically with the environment, if you want armies to fight either other when they encounter opposing forces, then each “member” of the crowd has to act independently. Good crowd simulation programs each CGI particle with its own A.I.—sets of rules and parameters of actions that will cause it to act both as an individual and as part of the group.

The challenge is that the audience knows what crowds do. We’ve seen crowds, and we’ve been in them. So, any deviations from what we expect implicitly will stand out, ruining the immersion. To make CGI crowds act according to human patterns, programmers have had to dabble in anthropology and ingrained behaviors, finding the subconscious patterns that cause people in crowds to act in specific ways, because large crowds tend to remove people to their more base instincts.

One of the emerging principles used for crowd simulation is the Principle of Least Effort (PLE). PLE started as a theory of language but has become recognized as an encompassing principle of human behaviors. Not just language, but human migration, decision-making, and eating habits all seem to adhere to this principle, which says that people will make decisions that minimize their perceived average rate of work. People consistently act in a way that requires the least amount of effort. When programming crowd simulation, PLE methods might set parameters for each actor to avoid collisions by taking actions that would require the least amount of caloric expenditure. The results are crowd behaviors that we would recognize as normal in any social environment. (See Stephen J. Guy et al., “PLEdestrians,” Eurographics, ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on Computer Animation (2010).)

You may not even realize how often you default to taking the past of least effort or path of least resistance through your day—throughout your life. If PLE really is a motivating principle for human behavior in general, it might explain why so many people struggle to make positive life-changes that require hard effort. They don’t lack desire or motivation. Things like strength training actually combat a deeper issue in your psyche and in society.

Principle of Least Effort

One of the primary principles in any human action is the expenditure of the least amount of effort to accomplish a task. PLE was popularized by linguist George Kingsley Zipf who studied the evolution of language in people groups. Zipf wrote, “A person solving his immediate problem will view these against the background of his future problems, as estimated by himself.” Depending entirely on one’s own interpretation of work and his environment, a person will try to minimize his probable rate of work expenditure—as he perceives it.

PLE was first used to describe linguistic shifts. Language changes through usage, evolving slang, new words, and even new languages. One of the reasons for this type of shift is laziness. When people simplify terms and phrases long enough, a common meaning forms and a new word gets added to the dictionary. So, “going to” becomes “gonna” and “God be with you” becomes “goodbye.” (If words didn’t shift meaning, then saying “ciao” means you are declaring your enslavement.) Laziness, it turns out, affects us more than we might like it to.

This is the phenomena observed in the example of crowd simulation above. When they use PLE as a guiding principle, individual units will move to avoid collisions, expending the fewest number of calories. When all individuals act to minimize caloric expenditure, the net effect is crowd behaviors like forming into lanes and maneuvering around obstacles. (Guy, Curtis, Lin, Manocha, “Least-effort trajectories lead to emergent crowd behaviors.” Phys. Rev. E., 85. 016110 (2012).). This means that social conventions, things people do that are considered “normal” in the social setting, are at least partially dictated by an innate drive toward laziness and saving calories.

PLE affects crowd movement on a macro scale as well. The economic factors of human migration seem to follow the principle of least effort as well:

“When all these [eighteen hypotheses of human migration] have been carefully reviewed, it may be found that most are explicitly migrational cases of the broader principle of least effort, according to which actors reach decisions whether and whither to move on the basis of relative known costs and returns (material and nonmaterial), subject as always to various inertial anchors.” (Zelinsky, Wilbur. “The Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition.” Geographical Review 61, no. 2 (1971).) 

Language and migration both demonstrate how this general principle of human action affects big-picture changes in social interactions and environments, but the same principle affects your health as well.

Consider how you make food choices. Where do you shop for groceries or go out to eat? If you are reading this, there is a higher likelihood that you will make food choices based on a combination of conscious effort and availability, but the average person defaults to the latter. Despite the socioeconomic implications of this—what kinds of food are available in what neighborhoods—the underlying principle seems the same: “Recent results also support the usefulness of Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort, which suggests that relative proximity in space of healthy vs. unhealthy food products affects the odds of a healthy vs. an unhealthy diet.” In contrast to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, for whom the least effort for food was still a great deal of energy, the least effort principle means that absent some other motivation the average person is more likely to eat what is convenient, spending fewer calories and often consuming less healthy food as a result. 

The Disuse Syndrome

“We are perfecting the art of spectating—vicarious exercise” 

-Dr. Walter M. Bortz II

The apogee of the principle of least effort and health is what Dr. Walter M. Bortz II has called the “Disuse Syndrome.” Dr. Bortz is one of America’s most distinguished scientific experts on aging and longevity, focusing on the importance of physical exercise. “Use,” he writes, referring to bodily systems like the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems “is a unifying biologic principle. Vital function is highly keyed to the production of energy.” The Disuse Syndrome is the collection of illnesses that accompany disuse: muscular atrophy, obesity, depression, stagnation, and more. “The primary characteristics of the disuse syndrome are cardiovascular vulnerability, obesity, musculoskeletal fragility, depression and premature aging.” Not unlike Dr. Sullivan’s Sick Aging Phenotype “syndrome of syndromes,” Dr. Bortz has recognized that these conditions so often accompany disuse as to warrant a clinical diagnosis. 

The culprit of disuse syndrome? The same reason why you say “gonna” instead of “going to.” Zipf’s principle of least effort. Dr. Bortz writes, “Our ardent pursuit of less effort has led to the wheel, push-button tuning, the horizontal escalator—the embodiment of least effort—the motorized golf cart. A major portion of our industrial complex is committed to the refinement of our inactivity.” When your survival no longer depends on physical prowess and technology, and commercial economic planning is designed for you to consume with the least amount of effort, there should be little wonder why exercise—artificial extra effort—has become such a large section of commerce. 

Overcoming PLE: Go Against the Crowd

People don’t want to be sick. They make poor decisions, and those decisions may accumulate, resulting in sickness—but no one wants to be unfit and unhealthy. Yet, PLE shows that our default mechanism is so often to do the least amount of work. This may be no surprise when, after describing that your hobby is to load up a bar with the weight of several people, and squat it, or pick it up, you receive blank stares and inane interrogatories: “Why?” We may struggle, in those times, against the herd mentality. Doing something different, especially something that is artificially and intentionally difficult, threatens the unchallenges of a technologically advancing society. 

Choosing to do something difficult goes against your programming. And choosing to do something that doesn’t follow the crowd makes you stand out as an anomaly. Neither of these things should ever stop you, however. Because the crowd doesn’t care about simple, hard, and effective, and it’s not there to help you become more than you already are. 

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