The Rat Race

Back in 1948 researchers at Yale University did a series of now-famous experiments on lab rats. In one they placed two rats in cages, inside of which was a button that would release a food pellet when pressed. One of the rats in the cage had been deprived of food a while and was very hungry. The other was satiated.

When the rats were put in the cage, the satiated rat just went into a corner and took a nap. But the hungry rat frantically searched the cage, desperately seeking food. Eventually the hungry rat pressed the food-button and subsequently it figured out that pressing the button generated the food. Of course the satiated rat didn’t learn that skill, because it didn’t need to search for food.

Hearing this discussed on a podcast recently has me thinking about how adversity can act as a motivator.

Might a person who grows up poor, for example, be more motivated to achieve than if that same person had grown up wealthy? It seems to me that may often be the case.

Of course I’m not suggesting that the desire to improve the condition/lifestyle of oneself and one’s children is the only motivator for hard work, creativity and thereby progress and economic growth. Intellectual curiosity, personal satisfaction from work and gain, and even megalomania, among other things, could have that same effect. But undoubtedly the desire to move from poverty to middle class and from middle class to upper class has historically been a motivator in our society.

If we ever achieve a society in which all our basic needs are assured (whether we work or not), I wonder how that will effect our collective work ethic? Will it even matter?

I realize that at an individual level there could be wide variety of different responses. I felt strongly motivated to succeed/improve when I was growing up and we were what would now be considered poor. So maybe I was like the hungry rat. But now, even though I might arguably be compared to the satiated rat, after working until past nine last night I’m up early this morning in order to try to finish planting our summer gardens ahead of the rain forecast for later today.

My guess is that if we ever become a society of satiated rats, plenty of us who might otherwise be working hard to make a living, will take naps instead. On the other hand, some of us, despite not being motivated by fear and necessity, will nevertheless continue to work hard and innovate.

But as much as I urge people to seek and experience contentment, and as strongly as I believe doing so on a wide-scale will be beneficial to humanity, we’ve never had a society that could be uniformly and justifiably content. I do wonder about the negative consequences that might come along with that.