Don’t overlook the explanatory power of path dependency

March 3, 2008 | By | 11 Replies More

We do many inefficient things.  Why don’t we simply do those things differently, in a more efficient way?  Often, we don’t change things because we’ve done them a certain way for so long that it would take too much time and psychological effort to do them in new ways, even though the new ways would be easier and more inefficient in the long run.

The QWERTY keyboard is a great example. We could rearrange our keyboards, which would cause us to struggle with our new configurations for a few months or years, but then we’d all be better for the change.  We don’t do this, however.  It would take too much initial effort.

Scientific theories are quite often strained by the discovery of new evidence that doesn’t fit the theory, yet we cling to the old inadequate theories.   This is another tendency toward path dependence.   For example, until the 17th century, “epicycles” were used to explain the perceived retrograde motion of planets and stars.  Epicycles were finally discarded in response to Kepler’s work.   Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out that scientific progress does not occur smoothly, but rather in the form of periodic revolutions that that he termed paradigm shifts. The fact that scientists tend to hold onto old unworkable theories longer than they should can be seen as another manifestation of path dependence.

It would make a lot of sense to simplify the spellings of many words used in the English language.  We don’t do this, however.  It would take too much time and effort in the short run, even though it would be well worth our while in the long run.  And shouldn’t we all switch over to a universal language, so everyone could understand everyone else?  Esperanto, anyone?

We don’t have the determination to make many long-term improvements due to the time and energy it would take to make the short-term change.

I thought of path dependence yesterday when I drove past the campus of St. Louis University, a large Jesuit college in St. Louis, Missouri.  I attended the St. Louis University school of Law.  I know many people who have received fine educations from St. Louis University.  I know that many of the people associated with University are good-hearted people who do wonderful things for the community.  On the other hand, St. Louis University is a school based upon an unsubstantiated belief that a bloody crucifixion occurring 2000 years ago “saved” humankind.  What does my well-reputed school of law have to do with claims that a man/God visited Earth to save his wretchedly undeserving children?  Many people would say nothing at all. The Law School is attend by many students who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. It could be argued that the education provided by the St. Louis University School of Law could equally be provided by a university that didn’t make any claim that a man named Jesus rose from the dead.  After all, I attended law school for three years and never once heard Jesus discussed in any law school class.  So, why is it that a law school that teaches nothing about Jesus is considered to be a Jesuit law school?  Good question.  I consider it to be another manifestation of path dependence.  The buildings and administration of an existing Jesuit college simply made for a good foundation for the Law School.  The Jesuits would argue that the SLU School of Law is as good as it is because it is Catholic.  They would hear some good arguments that this is not the reason from some of the many fine law schools that are not Catholic, however.

Speaking of law, the legal principle of stare decisis holds that an ongoing legal dispute should be decided a particular way solely because a previous and similar case was handled that way.   This legal heuristic can also be seen as evidence of the human tendency toward path dependence.  It undoubtedly reduces cognitive load for a judge to make reference to a factually similar case when determining how to decide in the case at hand.  Finding a highly similar factual case that was previously decided allows a judge to decide the present case without much thought at all.  In fact, many cases are decided today through the mindless invocation of stare decisis.  What’s justice got to do with it?  Sometimes not much at all. 

What else do we do today because we’ve always done it before and it might be too hard to change?  How about the traditions of serving birthday cake on birthdays and singing the god-awful birthday song?  What about the tradition that brides wear white dresses at their weddings, even though it is a rare bride who is actually a virgin.  Here’s an example based on technology: All later versions of Intel’s microprocessors are compatible with its 8086 processor, which was introduced into the market around 1982.  And wouldn’t it make sense for everyone in the United States to switch over to the metric system?  This resistance is yet another manifestation of path dependence.

Perhaps I should point out that hard determinism is a pervasive yet (except for philosophers) relatively uncontroversial form of path dependence.  Hard determinism holds that “every event, including human cognition and behavior, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.” What I have been focusing on in this post is the form of path dependence based on a psychological perspective rather than physical causation.

I should also point out that there are also powerful biological and social reasons for clinging to ways of life that seems to be inefficient or outmoded.  Sometimes we do things the old inefficient way because we are honoring tradition (which promotes social bonding).  Sometimes we do things in an extravagant (and therefore inefficiently) as a way to display our access to resources, this display being a method of achieving improved social status or sexual opportunities.

My favorite illustration of path dependence can be found in the following e-mail (author unknown), which has been passed around for many years.  His e-mail considers the relationship between the design of the space shuttle and the width of the horse’s ass:

Who says it is not worthwhile to study history? Isn’t the item below invaluable?…. The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads. Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tram¬ways, and that’s the gauge they used. Why did ‘they’ use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts? Roman war chariots first made the initial ruts, which eve¬ryone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels and wagons. Since the chariots were made for, or by Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Thus, we have the answer to the original ques¬tion. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So, the next time you are handed a speci¬fication and wonder which horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war-horses. Now there’s an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses behind. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. Thiokol makes the SRBs at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horse’s behinds. So, the major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a Horse’s ass!

I found the above quote here

Here’s another good example of path dependence, this one involving a succession of dramatic political events.  The story is told by Stephen Kinzer in an interview with Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow.   Kinzer is the author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and The Roots of Middle East Terror. The book chronicles the CIA-backed 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government after Iran nationalized its oil industry. If Kinzer is right, a bad decision made in 1953 continues to hunt us today: 

STEPHEN KINZER: So at the end of August 1953, [democratically elected Iranian leader] Mosaddeq was overthrown. At the moment, that seemed like a great success. So we got rid of a guy that we didn’t like, and we replaced him with someone else, the Shah, who would do anything we wanted. It seemed like the perfect ending.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mosaddeq is put into exile for the rest of his life.

STEPHEN KINZER: He was under house arrest for the rest of his life in his village in Iran. So that coup seemed like a success at first. But now, when you look back on it, it serves as a fascinating object lesson in unintended consequences.
Just very briefly, so we placed the Shah back on his peacock throne. The Shah ruled with increasing repression for twenty-five years. His repression set off the explosion of the late 1970s, what we call the Islamic Revolution. That revolution brought to power a clique of fanatically anti-American mullahs. That revolution also inspired radicals in other countries, like next-door Afghanistan, where the Taliban came to power and gave shelter to al-Qaeda with results we all know. That instability in Iran that followed that revolution also led Iran’s great enemy next door, Saddam Hussein, to invade Iran. That not only set off an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, but it also brought the United States into its death embrace with Saddam. We were the military allies of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, and we were supplying Saddam with military intelligence, with Bell helicopters that he used to spray gas on Iranian positions. President Reagan sent a special envoy twice to Baghdad to negotiate with Saddam and ask him how we could help him. And, of course, that envoy was Donald Rumsfeld. So that instability set off by that revolution also led the United States into the spiral in Iraq that brought us to the point where we are now.
That revolution in Iran also spooked the Soviets. They were terrified that there would be copycat fundamentalist revolutions all along their southern flank. And to prevent that, they invaded Afghanistan. That brought the United States into its position in Afghanistan, where we brought Osama bin Laden there, we trained all these tens of thousands of jihadis in how to kill infidels, which they later became the Taliban. We later became the infidels they wanted to kill. So why is this all so important for today?

AMY GOODMAN: And, in fact, it affected the Carter-Reagan elections, brought Reagan to power.

STEPHEN KINZER: Oh, and it devastated the presidency of Jimmy Carter forever, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Which had enormous effect then on Latin America, when you look at Reagan’s role in Latin America in the ’80s.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, History, Law, Meaning of Life, Politics, Religion, Science, Technology, transportation

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    The typing keyboard layout was almost changed at the dawn of personal computers. Back in the early 1980's, a small group of efficiency advocates tried very hard to make the Dvorak keyboard, one designed in 1936 for minimum wrist strain and maximum typing speed, the standard on computers.

    <img src="; alt="Dvorak Keyboard">

    This is as opposed to Querty that was designed in the 1870's to slow typists down to reduce the frequency of typewriter jams. Improved typewriter design eliminated that first cause before WWII, but school bureaucracy was already fixed on teaching Querty, and there wasn't time to teach both. Bosses didn't want the burden of teaching it, either.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    "As God Intended" is always a synonym for "What I'm Used To"

  3. I just say, "Etymology!!"

    Linguistic barbarians…

  4. On the other hand I prefer meters, centimeters, grams and kilograms to gallons, pounds, stones, inches, feet, yards, etc. But I probably prefer tjese units, because I'm used to them and they strike me as easier to handle.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    3 nations still use British Imperial units instead of metric: U.S.A, Myanmar (Burma), and Liberia. (Reference)

    That's out of the 192 nations recognized by the U.N.

    The U.S. has held out against this more rational system since Ben Franklin himself argued for its use to the Continental Congress.

    I have written software that had to be able to calculate in Miles, yards, feet, inches, and 16ths (mixing base 16, 12, 3, 10, and 5280). The simplest solution was: Convert to metric and then back.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Dan's mention of British Imperial units reminds me of the long and disappointing history of the metric system in the U.S. Way back in the 1970s, the U.S. government announced plans to "Go Metric" in 1980. Businesses screamed that it was too expensive, so the feds declared a ten year extension. As the 1990 deadline approached, the feds again proudly announced their plan to go metric when the extension expired. Again, businesses screamed and, again, the feds declared yet another ten year extension. I'll let you all figure out what happened with the plan to go metric in 2000.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Democracy in America might itself be a result of path dependency. There is reason to believe that America's Founding Fathers got the idea of citizen-based democracy from the Native Americans, who had managed to live here just fine for many generations without any help at all from any of the kings of Europe. European settlers eventually asked themselves the obvious question: hey, if they can do it, why can't we? Had Native Americans not been here to provide the example, American-style democracy might never have existed.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to the comments above about America's imperial system of weights and measures, I recently saw a show on PBS that explained the reason for its use in the U.S. The ability to own land was, for many immigrants, a defining quality of America, because land ownership in the Old World was simply not possible for most people. Thus, they came to the New World with land ownership uppermost in their minds. But how was land defined in America? It was defined by surveyors, who measured out plots of land as the population moved west. And how did those surveyors measure out plots of land? With metal rods, and lengths of chain that were multiples of the metal rods. And how long were the rods? They were 16.5 feet long — the standard length of the ox goad used by medieval English ploughmen. And how did they measure land with rods and chains? They measured out acres, which were four rods wide and forty rods long. And why did the surveyors use multiples of four instead of multiples of ten? Because multiples of four made the parcels easier for the surveyors to cut in half, and since the surveyors were the ones doing the surveying, they got to choose. Over time, Americans not only got used to systems that were based on multiples of four, but it was ingrained in their thinking by the huge importance they placed on land. And that's why American weights and measures are still, to this day, all based on multiples of four and not ten, and why Americans continue to have a seemingly inbred aversion to the metric system.

    Oh, and BTW, early surveyors didn't actually map out individual acres; they mapped out townships, each consisting of 36 sections, each section containing 640 acres — again, all multiples of four to make subdivision easier.

    One other thing about surveying in America. Have you ever noticed that rural highways often follow a straight line for several miles and then take an abrupt 90 degree turn, often followed soon thereafter by another 90 degree turn? We can thank the surveyors for that. See, they were trying to parcel out a spherical planet using rectilinear plots of land. Not surprisingly, as they moved north, the curvature of the planet required them to periodically reset their baseline to keep the plots of land similar; otherwise, large plots of land would wind up being much narrower at the north end than at the south end. Every time they reset their baseline, they got a discontinuity in their survey lines — a sudden 90 angle.

Leave a Reply