Excess Turbulence?

To help me imagine how different future cultures might be, I’ve been trying to learn about typical lives of our distant ancestors. One excellent source is Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in 1978. Around 1300 Jacquest Fournier, who eventually became pope but was then a bishop, led an Inquisition against heretics in the small town of Montaillou in southern France, population 200. He transcribed several years worth of interviews of them, revealing great detail about ordinary life there. One tidbit:

Instability was the hallmark of a shepard’s life, as of the lives of all rural workers in Occitania: ‘Every year’, says Oliveier de Serres in his book on agriculture, ‘change your farm hands, make a clean sweep. Those that come after will put all the more heart into their work.’ The people we are concerned with did not feel this instability as some kind of oppression or alienation. On the contrary, the migrant shepard changed his master more often than his shirt! (p.114)

I’m told that even in the modern world one tends to hire new ranch hands every year.

In the farming world, people like shepards, loggers, etc. who lived furthest from concentrations of people tended to have the lowest status and be the poorest. Such jobs were almost entirely done by men, and so such men rarely married until they switched careers. All of which makes some sense. But I’m puzzled that such people typically changed jobs every year, moving many miles away to work with very different people. It is hard to understand such behaviors as productivity maximizing ways forced on people living at the edge of subsistence. This seems instead to be one of the few luxuries such men purchased, so that they could feel less bored and enjoy variety.

A related phenomena is the puzzling fact that people tend to get weary of exerting effort, and so need to take breaks and rest periodically. Not only do people need to rest and sleep at the end of a work day, but on the job mental fatigue reduces mental performance by about 0.1% per minute. Since by resting we can recover at a rate of 1% per minute, we need roughly one tenth of our workday to be break time, with the duration between breaks being not much more than an hour or two (Trougakos and Hideg 2009; Alvanchi et al. 2012). This doesn’t seem to be due to any obvious physical wear or depletion; it seems to be all in our mind.

Both of these examples, a preference for variety in work locations and associates, and a preference for periodic work breaks during the day, seem plausible functional behaviors for our forager ancestors, and also for their more distant animal ancestors. But they make less sense today. Maybe our minds have embedded the assumption that these are functional behaviors at such a deep level that we are still better off following them today. Or maybe not.

Added 25Aug: In many animal species, a single male controls a harem of females, and the other males wander between the harems, looking for a chance to tempt females for illicit trysts, or to challenge a weak harem ruler. Maybe young low status human males are expressing very ancient animal behavioral patterns.

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  • http://facelessbureaucrat.blogspot.com/ Bill Harshaw

    In the Army in the 60’s we had a 10-minute break every hour.

    At least in rural NY in the 50’s, hired help for harvest was local teenagers. Other longer-term help had few community ties, being single males.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The question is *why* single males don’t stay in one place longer to develop those community ties.

      • http://facelessbureaucrat.blogspot.com/ Bill Harshaw

        In a 20th century rural community, the only one I know a little about, young males need access to land, obtained by either subdividing the parental farm if possible, waiting until the parents are too infirm to farm it, or by finding a daughter-rich, son-poor farmer. Absent such possibilities, they move to the city, or the West, etc. An established community revolves around the school and the churches and a single male is a poor fit.

        Might the data reported apply primarily to young men–12 and above? It’s not clear to me who in the quotation has the economic power–the owner can easily replace his herders? Or the herders can readily find new jobs? Seems unlikely for both conditions to apply at the same time.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Moving once makes sense. Moving again every year makes much less sense.

  • Sam Dangremond

    This is why people take ProVigil.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    The only clue presented as to the cause of this constant migration is “Those that come after will put all the more heart into their work.” This doesn’t suggest relief of boredom. Moving away from all previous associates isn’t rewarding for most folks.

    My best guess is that as the hands came to know each other, they became more adept at cooperating to resist exploitation. So, the master does best to disperse them often. Then, they “put more heart in their work.”

    • Ken Arromdee

      That’s the key, of course. Rapid turnover of employees in this type of job is beneficial to the employer. And the employer is in control. Employers don’t like employees who have many options and who are harder to take advantage of, and will prefer rapid turnover in order to prevent that.

      Describing this as employees choosing to leave ignores the reality of the employer/employee relationship; if you’re fired in favor of a more pliable employee with fewer connections, you can’t choose to be un-fired.

    • IMASBA

      “My best guess is that as the hands came to know each other, they became more adept at cooperating to resist exploitation. So, the master does best to disperse them often. Then, they “put more heart in their work.” ”

      Could be. There are many other explanations for why this moving around was not entirely voluntarily. it could even be as banal as employers simply believing high turnover causes higher productivity or employers and employees routinely getting into conflicts.

  • Viliam Búr

    When I am new somewhere, being at the bottom of the status pole feels more natural. I feel it is my place to observe, to learn, and to wait for my opportunity later. I can imagine that gradually my status will grow, and that belief makes me happier.

    If a lot of time passes, and I am still at the bottom of the status pole, or even somewhat higher but not as high as I have imagined previously, I get angry. Now I feel I should fight for the place I deserve. But I can’t literally fight; and I am not good at office politics, so my frustration grows. Until I leave the place and go somewhere else, where merely the change of location will make me feel okay again.

    Maybe the shepherds felt similarly. Maybe the frequent moving made their low status psychologically more bearable. They could believe they will have better luck in the next place, even if the chances were small, and they knew as a fact that their status will remain low if they stay.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      That the shepherds failed to report feelings of “alienation” (as Robin offers) doesn’t mean moving was their choice. Certainly the evidence Robin presents suggests it’s the masters’ choice.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      If in fact moving a lot tends to help raise one’s status because one finds a place that likes you, then yes moving a lot makes more sense. But is that in fact the way to rise in status on average?

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Could you explain why you think the managerial decision to dismiss all hands was really the hands’ decision? [Is it your aversion to any concept of class struggle?]

    It rather defies imagination that the low-status hands would realize their interests in this behavior by their masters–when, after all, they would otherwise be free to relocate without first being fired

    [Sometimes you seem concerned to develop your opinions without much regard to whether they are fundamentally true.]

    • truth_machine

      Robin keeps saying that it doesn’t make sense, while ignoring the obvious hypothesis that makes sense of it.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      In the book I mentioned, it is clear that most of the job leaving is in fact initiated by the shepards, not by their employers.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Is it clearer than in the quote: “The people we are concerned with did not feel this instability as some kind of oppression or alienation. On the contrary, the migrant shepard changed his master more often than his shirt! (p.114)”?

        Other than that the hands didn’t own much in the way of clothing, I can’t see what this proves. Regularly occurring events are usually taken for granted. For example, construction workers don’t feel oppressed by the seasonal character of their work.

        Perhaps this is the argument: “It is hard to understand such behaviors as productivity maximizing ways forced on people living at the edge of subsistence.”

        I think I’ve provided a way it might be productivity maximizing.

        [Your response is really nothing but an appeal to your authority as reader.]

      • Clinton McMurray

        But why didn’t they return the following season? Teachers often return to the same school. Construction workers often return to the same building firm.

        The promise of future work might, conditional on doing a good job this season, might be more productivity maximizing than otherwise. If a worker knew there was no hope of work in future seasons, what would that do to incentives to perform well this season? Looked at this way, I think Robin’s take on it seems reasonable – the hands get some benefit from exercising control in decision making that they don’t have elsewhere, and a preference for variety.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The further down the status hierarchy, the more the governance by the stick, the less by the carrot.

      • Clinton McMurray

        I agree on the carrots and sticks point.

        I’m not so sure about the seasonal mass firing. It’s difficult to imagine land owners not competing with each other for the best workers.

        Maybe it was is fact the just the management culture, or maybe the workers played a big role. It’s difficult to say from the passage Robin posted, as it contains seemingly contradictory clauses. You read “The people we are concerned with did not feel this instability as some kind of oppression or alienation. On the contrary, the migrant shepard changed his master more often than his shirt!” as the master’s creating the instability, emphasizing the first sentence. I read the second sentence as meaning that the workers voluntarily changed their masters often (and that there was no oppression precisely because it was voluntary).

        Robin says that in the text it is clear that the job leaving was initiated by the workers. I haven’t read it, but it seems like the more likely scenario to me.

  • efalken

    I read a great biography of Kit Carson. He made out for the wilderness as a teenager, and basically only stopped after old age. He was very impressive–surely could have captured a mate in a sedentary field–and lived a life of adventure that is alluring at moments (I like warmth and comfort too much to be a good settler).

  • http://essay-writer-online.blogspot.com/ essay writer

    I want to learn more about the typical lives and distance ancestor than finally I got this post.It provides me complete and all basic information about my queries.Thanks to author for helping me.

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  • krdavis

    Market structural features may explain the switching, particularly:

    1. High numbers on both sides of the market with low switching costs. This frothiness enables frequent switching.
    2. Low trust, resulting in…
    3. …One-way or mutual exploitation

    I’ve gone into more detail in a WordPress ‘Responsicle’ outlining how this might work, and using the labor and dating markets in NYC as examples: https://responsicles.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/responsicle-to-robin-hansons-overcoming-bias-post-excess-turbulence/

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