The boiled frog fallacy

Frogs just want to make more frogs.

Frogs just want to make more frogs.

A popular story in motivational talks goes something like this; if a frog is put into a pan of boiling water it will leap out of the pan immediately but if the frog is put into a pan of tepid water and the pan is then heated, the frog will stay in the pan until it is boiled to death.

Well, you know me, I question everything, so I thought I would do a little experiment. But rather than harm an innocent frog, I thought I would experiment on myself. So I took a bath, a hot one. Here are my findings.

When you go to sit in the bath, you move from the temperature of the air into the temperature of the water. Your body quickly detects the change and calls various bodily responses into action. If the temperature change is slight, very little stimulus is experienced – the body is more aware of sensation rather than temperature . If it is extreme, an overload of stimulus is experienced and you are forced to take some sort of action – like jumping out of the bath. So the first part of the frog story holds good.

If the temperature change is just within the pain parameters, something interesting happens. A rush of stimuli is experienced which tells the body that a significant change has occurred. This rush can be extremely pleasant as the body makes adjustments for the new temperature. The intense feeling of warmth can last for several seconds and the effects of it, for a few minutes. But after that time, the body has made the necessary adjustments to the new temperature and attempts to accommodate the new temperature as, ‘the norm’. This is done by sweating and sending blood to the extremities. Quickly then, the rush is replaced by a new norm and we are pretty much back to the lack of stimulus we experienced before we stepped into the bath except that we are several degrees hotter. To perpetuate the rush we have to introduce new sensations which make demands on our body to adjust to the changes. We can either add more hot water to the bath, in which case we might cross the threshold to pain and burn ourselves or we can add cold water and experience the cooling adjustment. Or we can simply lay in the bath and do nothing (as per the frog in the story).

My experiment so far, tells me that my particular organism seeks a comfortable existence whilst at the same time, maintaining an element of adventure for such times as changes in the environment demand action.

So lets go back to our motivational speaker. They usually exhort you to make a significant change from your habitual experience of life – climb that mountain, change that thought, go on a diet etc. And yes, should you make the effort, there is an initial rush of adjustment to the change, both physically and mentally. But over time, your body seeks to normalize any changes. So once climbing a particular mountain is achieved (or whatever) you are back to where you started in terms of stimuli (assuming, of course, that the weather remains uneventful on the mountain). In order to experience the rush of adjustment again, you have to climb a different mountain, usually higher or more difficult. Eventually, your hunger for stimuli will be comparable to a drug addiction – greater quantities will be required to produce less satisfactory results. The obvious  corollary of this is that you attempt to achieve a stimulus too great for your organism to bear. In other words, you step into a bath of boiling water and die.

Your body will attempt to make the new change, the new norm, that’s how we adapt as a species. If we take the motivational idea to its absurd conclusion then, the perfect way to live your life, would be to watch paint dry for several hours before playing Russian roulette or maybe have sex continuously with the irregular interruption of a wild beast hunting you or you, it.

Most people don’t live their lives like that, so what else is missing from this story?

Well, in the frog’s case, its main goal is to make more frogs, so it will avoid boiling pans of water because that does not help it in its cause and luckily, it rarely encounters boiling water in the wild. In our case, we want to make more humans too but we have the added complication of ideas and intellect. The motivational speaker appeals to the intellect and sells the idea of ‘positive change’. But not everyone likes climbing mountains, or working harder, etcetera. And here is the key.

The trick is to find what you like doing. You generally like doing something because you have a talent for doing it (but not always). Our prime motivation is still the desire to make more of ourselves. This used to be literally through babies, but today it can be achieved intellectually through fame and reputation. You can make more of yourself through the aggrandizing culture of our society.

Unfortunately, most motivational speeches don’t explain that simply attempting to do something positive is not enough, change for its own sake is nonsensical, you have to like what it is you are attempting to do, you have to like taking hot baths… And certain talents are unrecognized in today’s lop sided society – you might be a genius at not spending money or avoiding hard work.

This story of the frog is, of course, totally misleading and largely apocryphal. Common sense tells you it simply isn’t going to work in reality. It is a symbolic generalization, but do not accept symbolic generalizations, they are fallacious and dangerous. They can make you mistakenly believe that the map is the territory*

And anyway, you are not a cold blooded amphibian, you are a hot human being – demand higher standards, demand better stories, demand relevance.

* Alfred Korzybski

One Response to “The boiled frog fallacy”

  1. Ken Qualls says:

    Finally, someone who agrees with me. Or, with whom I agree.

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