Everything follows the path of least resistance

Epistemic status: feeling strongly I am onto something, but also confused how to apply it to all cases. I describe my ideas in my own words, and am not communicating them clearly. Given the strength of my claim, it’s probably wrong. But let me defend it anyway.

Everything follows the path of least resistance. And when I say “everything” I don’t mean “most things”, I mean everything.

People who are lazy are sometimes described as taking the path of least resistance. Of course, I agree (because I believe that everything takes the path of least resistance). However, this implies that hard-working, conscientious people are taking a more difficult path. They’re eschewing the path of least resistance. That’s wrong. Hard-working people have done at least one of both things, and probably both:

  1. They have made the hard path easier. Going to work an hour early has become habitual, or asking difficult questions when they are confused has become habitual.
  2. They have made it easy path(s) harder. They feel negatively about being lazy, are afraid of being judged, or simply don’t know how to be lazy. It’s not a habit.

Why does water flow downward and through the valley? It’s the path of least resistance. (And interestingly, just like habits, the more water has flown somewhere previously, the more likely this path will be the path of least resistance for new water).

Why do people when confronted with their own immoral behavior, often change their belief rather than their behavior? Because it’s the path of least resistance.

Why is it so hard to stick with very hard problems? Because it’s high resistance. Why have some exceptional research been able to really focus on the hard problems? Because they have made it easier, and have erected barriers to the other paths.

Why is it so hard to change organizations? Because sticking with habits is the path of least resistance. To change organizations, you must create resistance towards the current state of being and create believe that the change is not so hard after all.

Now there remain at least three questions:

  1. Why does everything follow the path of least resistance?
  2. Is there not random movement, not following anything?
  3. What about payoffs? Surely a hard path with a good payoff will be taken.

I think the answers to the questions are related to evolution. Yes, there is random movement. But everything faces a selection pressure: animals will mate, ideas will be spread. The selection favors the ones taking the path of least resistance, because they will be most successful: the most offspring, the most energy left to do other valuable things. Regarding the payoff, for people a higher payoff will make a path more attractive (thus lower resistance). For thing without intent, the expected payoff (probability of achieving * actual payoff if achieved) will determine attractiveness for large enough samples.

If I’m right, this has the implication that a global optimum cannot be reached without changing the landscape. You got to erect barriers to the easier optima, and pave the way to the global optimum. More practically, I think this can serve as a tool for understanding confusing phenomena: ‘why does X do Y?’ Because it’s following the path of least resistance. You then need to figure out what the other paths are, what their resistances are, and why they are higher.

I challenge anyone to show me an example of something not following the path of least resistance. I believe that if I understand the phenomenon enough, I can show it actually does.

In the meantime, I will think more about this. I believe I need to read more about evolution (in its abstract form, not necessarily biological evolution).