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Human Behavior and The Principle of Least Effort Review

Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort
Published: 6/6/2012
2012 Reprint of 1949 Edition. Exact facsimile of the original edition, not reproduced with Optical Recognition Software. The principle of least effort is a broad theory that covers diverse fields from evolutionary biology to webpage design. It postulates that animals, people, even well designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or "effort." This is perhaps best known or at least documented among researchers in the field of library and information science. Their…
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Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort

“In simple terms, the Principle of Least Effort means, for example, that a person in solving his immediate problems will view these against the background of his future problems, as ...

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“In simple terms, the Principle of Least Effort means, for example, that a person in solving his immediate problems will view these against the background of his future problems, as estimated by himself. Moreover, he will strive to solve his problems in such a way as to minimize the total work that he must expend in solving both his immediate problems and his probable future problems. That in turn means that the person will strive to minimize the probable average rate of his work-expenditure (over time). And in so doing he will be minimizing his effort… Least effort, therefore, is a variant of least work.”

– Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort: An Introduction to Human Ecology, George Kingsley Zipf

Imagine two cities, which are not separated by a smooth bridge, but by a mountain range. If you could decide how people crossed over from one city to another, what would you do? One option is to create a path of least distance, where you dig a tunnel to the other side. This is difficult to do but will take less time over the long run. Or you can require the people to travel a long, winding, and torturous path. This is the easier choice, but it will take a lot more time.

This concept is known as the “singleness of the superlative” and it describes the trade-off between two mutually exclusive variables (more time-less effort or less time-more effort). A single superlative makes sense, from a logical perspective. Whereas a double superlative does not make sense. An example of a double superlative is “sink the maximum amount of ships in the least amount of time.”

It becomes problematic when an individual is faced with two superlatives. For example, they may want to do less work, but they also want to do it less time. In such a case, the individual is at odds with himself. And what we know from the psychological literature is that this is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Jobs seek tools, and tools seek jobs. Consider carpentry. Any job of carpentry would require the tools of carpentry to be used, in addition to the carpenter (himself a tool). But what happens when you invert the situation? What if you only had the tools? Either the carpentry tools or the carpenter. In such a cause, the tools themselves, since they can only be used for carpentry, would look for carpentry jobs. During the war, automobile manufacturers repurposed their production of cars for civilians to produce military vehicles. In other words, what determines that jobs are done, are not the jobs that are required to be done, but the jobs that are capable of being done.

When speaking, there is a trade-off between a small vocabulary of more general words versus a larger vocabulary that is more specific two.  According to Zipf, the speaker conserves his effort by having a small vocabulary of common words, and the hearer’s effort is lessened by having a large vocabulary of rarer words. This economical compromise appears in the data that supports Zipf’s law.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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