Charting the Path of Least Resistance
There’s two different conditions:
- the path of least resistance - where the ultimate goal is changed because the goal is hard
- the least resistance on the path - where the means to get to the goal is changed because there is an easier method for each individual step towards the goal
"Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it. But here’s the thing: What does your brain like? What gets the “yes” vote? It likes the stuff it already recognizes. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it." - Robert Burton, Psychologist
Nations, institutions, individuals can all be blinded by love, by the need to believe themselves good and worthy and valued. We simply could not function if we believed ourselves to be otherwise. But when we are blind to the flaws and failings of what we love, we aren’t effective either… We make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know. That’s the paradox of blindness: We think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.
"Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random — there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops." - Robert Burton, Psychologist
Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more — even as the landscape shrinks.
"We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?"
LEAST OR PERFECT RESISTANCE
The law of least effort goes by many names such as going with the flow, to name a couple, but the path of least resistance is a theme we hear about in many spiritual texts. At first, it may go against everything you have ever believed was true about following your dreams and achieving your goals. Is this concept actually implying that doing LESS work, putting in LESS effort will help us achieve things faster? Not exactly.
The path of least resistance does not suggest that you take NO action, but that you take PERFECT action. For example, the biggest thing we can observe applying the path of least resistance is nature. Everything in nature has a sole purpose, and 100% of the time, without fail, each thing in nature sticks to their purpose and therefore takes perfect action.
Recent psychological study involving large scale participation have discovered something most people are vaguely aware of but tend to deny: the human brain is lazy.
Of course, this isn’t unique to humans. Everything takes the path of least resistance: water, electricity, and Google maps. Wolves evolved into domesticated dogs because it was easier to scavenge on human trash than track down prey.
But for millennials figuring out what career path to take, for workers biting clickbait instead of making progress, and for managers struggling to prioritize, this research has real repercussions.
The study was simple. Researchers showed participants a screen with a cloud of dots moving either to the right or to the left. Participants were instructed to move a handle to the right if the dot cloud was moving right and to the left if the cloud was moving left. They were good at this. But when researchers added a directional load to the handle, making it slightly harder to move it the way the dots were going, participants became biased. They avoided the effortful response and moved the handle in the opposite direction of the dots.
Interestingly, participants didn’t realize that the researchers were manipulating their decisions, instead becoming convinced that the dots were actually moving in the direction of least resistance. “This change happened automatically, without any awareness or deliberate strategy,” the researchers wrote. The increased effort changed what the participants thought they saw.
- Imagine you are in an orchard, trying to decide which of the many apples to pick. On what do you base your decision? Most research into this type of decision-making has focused on how the brain uses visual information – about features such as colour, size and shape – to make a choice. But what about the effort required to obtain the apple? Does an apple at the top of the tree look more or less tempting than the low-hanging fruit?
- The answer, this study suggests, is that the low-hanging fruit will probably look more appealing to you. "Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest," said the lead researcher, Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura. Conversely, when one option is harder to get, we’re more likely to think it’s the wrong choice.
- This is textbook cognitive dissonance. In Aesop’s Fables, a fox eyes some delicious, ripe grapes along a vine high in a tree. After realizing he can’t reach them, he decides they’re sour anyway. Similarly, when it becomes literally harder to make a decision about which way dots are moving, we unconsciously conclude that they’re moving in the other, easier direction.
So here’s a convention careerist example: Getting promoted is difficult to do. Rather than say, “This is hard but worth it,” we sometimes convince ourselves that we should just get a new job – which is often, all said and done, easier than sticking it out through the hard, vertical climb. Taking the path of least resistance can come in the form of rationalization, denial, or distraction.
One lesson from this study is to make hard the things that the higher, better you doesn’t want to do. Putting all your booze in a high cabinet in your basement will make it less tempting. A minority of the study participants chose to “change their actions rather than take the path of least resistance.” That is, they realized that moving the handle the right way was getting harder, and they resolved to overcome the extra effort and make the correct decision.
"Awareness, in this case and so many cases, is realizing when something’s challenging and deciding not to take the easy way out." - Caroline Beaton, Psychology Today agont aunt
One glaring problem in the world today is leaders who problem-solve along the path of least resistance, taking the easy route, serving and being rewarded by the “ruling class.” It is so much harder for leaders to sit down at the table and think through their problems thoroughly, examining every possible angle, and then presenting both conventional and alternative solutions that might work to the benefit of all – not just for the benefit of a powerful few.
So often problem-solving is single-minded. So often it is developed solely along ideological lines, or strictly for political reasons, or because the “answer” is popular, or because of personal feelings. Too often “solutions” are driven by the personal financial interests of the “leader” and of the “ruling class.” But why is that so? I believe those who have the power of leadership are not often challenged to make decisions that benefit the whole. They have not had to think about how their decisions impact the less powerful – those who they lead.
We see these self-serving leadership trends taking place all across America. Decisions are expedited in favor of the haves and not to benefit the have-nots. The “golden rule” seems to apply again here, "He who has the gold makes the rules." The best-selling author of “Who Rules America? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich,” G.William Domhoff, reminds us that self-serving leadership serves only those who profit and those who lead. This brand of self-serving leadership has reared its dangerous head during the recent City of Detroit bankruptcy matter. Although it is now open for appeal, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that the City’s pension system is indeed subject to cuts to satisfy the City’s creditors. At the same time the corporate banks and law firms that are structuring this municipal bankruptcy will make hundreds of millions of dollars in the deal. The “ruling class” wins! [Carlyle Stewart III]
Why must everyday working people who retired with an expectation that the pensions they earned would be paid now be punished by having their pensions cut when there are alternative solutions to these problems? We must ask ourselves if other remedies could have been placed on the table to help create a win-win, rather than the same “winner takes all” approach? Is this, yet again, evidence of leaders choosing the path of least resistance – serving the powerful and serving themselves? Is this a continuation of the same pattern of decision-making that has recently body slammed the economy and created fiscal disaster zones in cities all across America? Why must the people who can least afford to shoulder the brunt of slashed incomes always be made to pay the lion's share to remedy problems they did not help to create, while some corporations profit from their pain? Where is the justice and equity in all of this?
So we must now ponder: Because it is more difficult to go against those who rule, can a good portion of the problems we face locally and nationally be ascribed to leaders taking the path of least resistance in their decision making? If my approach to problem-solving always asks, “What's in it for me and my powerful few?” and not “What's in it for you, those who I lead?” then we will always arrive at the same old separate, disjointed places. Self-interested human behavior too often means fighting it out until the last man standing wins it all. But if, instead, each person at the table can ask, “What's in it for everyone, or for the other one?” then we might well arrive at a much better place – a place where everyone gets something. That would benefit not only the individual but everyone else in the group as well.
With all of the material and intellectual resources available to the powerful people making such decisions, why can there not be alternatives and solutions presented that would create a better world for all? Why? I am not saying that the remedies presented to address Detroit's fiscal problems have not been diligently worked on. I am not saying that those responsible for solving these problems are not sincere and do not believe that they are doing the right thing that will hopefully benefit everyone. What I am saying is that decision-making all too frequently is geared toward experiencing the least pain for those at the highest levels of power. Therefore, there are no fully crafted solutions that will spread that pain around a little more equitably. Rather than always having the little man pay up, why aren't more corporations or those who can most afford to pay up required to do so? Leadership means having the courage to thoroughly evaluate serious social problems and provide solutions that will have the best long-term impact on American society as a whole. Leadership looks beyond quick-fix remedies that are designed to fatten the pockets of people whose pockets are already overflowing. This means thoroughly thinking issues through and providing other forms of evaluation and analysis that can arrive at more holistic solutions for the people. Until the traditional approaches to problem solving in America can be thoroughly and painstakingly analyzed or inverted we will have more of the same lop sided, top down decisions that are made in favor of the powerful, rather than decisions that will benefit all of the American people.
The path of least resistance is rarely the best path for decision-making that will benefit all. Needed are other minds at the table who can think creatively and alternatively, rather than the usual trajectories of thought that ultimately put us all in the same old place. Those who have more get more. Those who have less get less. Leadership should not mean just taking the path of least resistance and serving the powerful. Rather, it should mean forging solutions that stretch, challenge and bring out the best in all of us in ways that will create the most for each of us, including the powerless and the powerful and the haves and have-nots.