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.


14 comments on “The Rat Race

  1. Thought provoking post I am currently living amongst some satiated rats in Florida, it seems for the most part they take a nap.


  2. Laurie Graves says:

    Yes, thought-provoking piece. However, I do want to suggest that maybe regular naps might be a good thing. Calming for the soul and body. Too much scrabbling can suck the creativity right of a person. Or a rat 😉


  3. An interesting analogy Bill.. I am reminded of those interviewed in Africa where education is sparse in villages.. Children walk for miles there and miles back every day to learn… Because they want to be educated and get out of the poverty they are in.

    And when asked what they aspire to be.. its is always something like being a Dr.. One said he wanted to be president.. of his country so he could help the poor..
    Being poor is a motivator.. He who has to work has little time to take naps..

    I am also reminded of seeing the House of Lords in Parliament here in the UK.. And seeing how many in their seats are nodding off .. So maybe you have a point..
    🙂 ❤
    Hope all the veggies are doing well Bill.. We are getting to grips now and nearly all planted.. 🙂


    • Bill says:

      Yes, that’s a very good example Sue.

      Just about an hour ago I finished planting our summer gardens. I finished up right as it started raining. Now we wait. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • 🙂 not got our summer flower plants in as yet.. waiting a little.. But the veggies all in.. 🙂 on the plot.. Apart from the Kidney beans.. As it may still turn cold.. the neighbour allotment lost all his last week. to frost..


  4. If we survive long enough, I am pretty sure there will come a time when work isn’t required to live, Bill. I don’t think this will be a problem for self-motivated people. There are always a million ways we can occupy ourselves and improve who we are as individuals and give back to society. The challenge will be with people who aren’t self-motivated. –Curt


    • Bill says:

      Exactly my thoughts. We face a very interesting future, as always.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joanna says:

        The problem is that there are not enough jobs to go around already and robotics could end up doing more and cheaper. So how we fill our time in will completely depend on our own ability to motivate ourselves – if we have a regular income. The only problem for taking naps instead of looking for food is perhaps our health will suffer with inactivity.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have an essay-sized reaction to this, but I’ll just share an interesting article.

    “A Town Without Poverty?
    Canada’s only experiment in guaranteed income finally gets reckoning”

    Here’s an excerpt:

    Canada’s experiment with guaranteed income is a little known success:

    “Initially, the Mincome [minimum income] program was conceived as a labour market experiment. The government wanted to know what would happen if everybody in town received a guaranteed income, and specifically, they wanted to know whether people would still work.

    It turns out they did.

    Only two segments of Dauphin’s labour force worked less as a result of Mincome—new mothers and teenagers. Mothers with newborns stopped working because they wanted to stay at home longer with their babies. And teenagers worked less because they weren’t under as much pressure to support their families.

    The end result was that they spent more time at school and more teenagers graduated. Those who continued to work were given more opportunities to choose what type of work they did.”

    Fun fact: the US almost passed a guaranteed income law proposed by Nixon. It got through the House but was blocked in the Senate by a coalition of progressives, who thought it didn’t do enough, and conservatives, who thought it did far too much.


    • Bill says:

      Fascinating. There is an experimental trial going on in Finland now. It’s interesting to see how the concept collects supporters from both the right and the left. I haven’t seen any proposal yet that is economically viable, but I’m intrigued by the way GBI combines compassion and personal responsibility (which explains the attraction on both ends of the spectrum, I reckon).

      Liked by 1 person

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