Tag Archives: Foragers

Who Gains From Grit?

I’ve often said that while foragers did what felt natural, farmer cultures used religion, conformity, self-control, and “grit,” to get farmers do less-natural-feeling things. But as we’ve become rich over the last few centuries, we’ve felt those pressures less, and revived forager-like attitudes. Today “conservatives” and “liberals” have farmer-like and forager-like attitudes, respectively. I think the following recent quotes support this view.

Tyler Cowen says workers today have less grit:

There is also a special problem for some young men, namely those with especially restless temperaments. They aren’t always well-suited to the new class of service jobs, like greeting customers or taking care of the aged, which require much discipline or sometimes even a subordination of will. (more)

There were two classes of workers fired in the great liquidity shortage of 2008-2010. The first were those revealed to be not very productive or bad for firm morale. They skew male rather than female, and young rather than old. … There really are a large number of workers who fall into the first category. (more)

Alfie Kohn says grit is overrated:

More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. … The heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-century chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” …

On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse.

But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded by those who told them to do it? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for using grades as markers of success…

Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being . . . and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” …

Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. (more)

Yes, grit is conservative, and gritty people may not be as playful, open, relaxed, or creative. Grit just helps individuals to succeed, and societies to get ugly things done, like winning their competitions with other societies. But yes, you might be happier to play video games in your parent’s basement, leaving the support of society to someone else.

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What Predicts Growth?

I just heard a fascinating talk by Enrico Spolaore of this paper on what predicts local growth rates over the very long run. He considers three periods: before the farming revolution, from farming to 1500, and from 1500 to today. The results:

  1. The first regions to adopt farming tended to equatorial non-tropic coastal (but not island) regions with lots of domesticable animals (table 2, column 1).
  2. The regions that had the most people in 1500 were those that first adopted farming, and also tended to be tropical inland regions (table 2, column 4).
  3. The regions that were richest per person in 2005 had no overall relation to populous 1500 regions (table 3, column 1), yet were places of folks whose ancestors came from places where farming and big states first started. Rich places also tend to be cool (i.e., toward poles) coasts or islands (table 5) filled with people that are more related culturally and genetically to the industry-era leaders of US and Europe (tables 6,7).

These results tend to support the idea that innovation sharing was central. The first farming innovations were shared along coasts in mild environments, i.e., not too cold or tropical. During the farming era, sharing happened more via inland invasions of peoples, which tropics aided. Industry first thrived in islands better insulated from invasion, industry travel and trade was more sea-based, and sharing of industry was more via people who could relate more to each other.

Changing technologies of travel seem to have made a huge difference. When travel was very hard, it happened first along coasts in mild climates. As domesticated animals made long-distance land travel easier, inland invasions dominated. Then when sea travel made travel far easier, and invasions got harder, cultural barriers mattered most.

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