Historical persistence and contingency
When do important features of the world persist and how contingent is the course of history?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying economics, history and sociology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

There are various features of the world that seem particularly significant when trying to understand how well the world is going in the present and how the future might unfold. These include factors such as ‘democratic or authoritarian norms and behaviours, concern for human rights, concern for animal welfare, and norms conducive to scientific progress or free markets,’ and development indicators such as standards of living, technological capabilities and subjective wellbeing.

Looking at how these features have evolved throughout history and when they have changed or persisted could help us better predict the future. The persistence of these features can also inform our understanding of the value of trying to influence them as a means of improving the world, because if a feature tends to persist for many generations, then positively influencing it is a way of improving not only lives today but also many future lives.

An understanding of the contingency of these features – in other words, ‘how much of [a] feature’s value can be attributed to a particular agent’s decision at a particular point in time’– is also important when assessing the expected value of attempts to improve the future. For example, the values that future generations will hold may be highly important and persist for a long time, but it’s also important to understand whether we can have a significant effect on their development through our actions today.

On way in which future technological advancements may have a major impact on global wellbeing is by causing important features of the world to become ‘locked in’ and inflexible to change. For example, increasingly powerful surveillance technologies could be used to uphold a totalitarian regime for far longer than it would otherwise survive. Understanding more about how technology could change the future is another way that exploring cultural persistence could be useful. The talk below by Ben Garfinkel includes a discussion of how future surveillance technologies could be used in this way.

Explore existing research

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

Econometrics could be a particularly useful approach to further research on cultural persistence. You could consider exploring:

  • Investigating how to correct for spatial autocorrelation, as in The Standard Errors of Persistence.
  • Doing open reviews and replications of existing papers.
  • More systematically investigating how the magnitude of persistent change waxes and wanes over time.
  • To what extent have historical events had long term, persistent impacts?
    • What are some historical examples, and were these predictable at the time?
    • How much better or worse were these events than the ‘alternate’ route?
  • Why are some values, institutions, and organisations extremely durable, lasting hundreds of years (e.g. academia), whereas others change frequently? What are the mechanisms that explain this?
  • Have there been times in the past when values have become ‘locked in,’ becoming inflexible in a manner that has led to their long-term persistence?
  • Why are some values, institutions, and organisations extremely durable, lasting hundreds of years (e.g. academia), whereas others change frequently? What are the mechanisms that explain this?
  • How might increased surveillance – which is becoming more feasible with technological development – influence the longterm future positively or negatively, e.g. via reducing existential risk or making totalitarian regimes more sustainable?
  • Is the existing persistence literature compelling? Does it make appropriate use of statistics? Are the data sources that this literature relies upon adequately well supported?

Further resources

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If you’re interested in taking a big picture view of humanity’s history, see our profiles on the most important historical trends and moral circle expansion.

If you’re interested in exploring how researchers can help to predict the future, our profile on forecasting the long-term future is also relevant.


This profile was last updated 7/01/22. Thanks to Toby Shevlane for first creating this profile. Thanks to Adam Bales and Jaime Sevilla for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own.

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