Friday, December 16, 2011

Trapping Monkeys, Boiling Frogs, Training Elephants

Despite the title, this post is more about the behavior of humans rather than animals.  If you are familiar with the concepts, feel free to skip it.  The first two concepts are popular with environmentalists, the third is used more by political activists.

In the jungles of Asia, it is reported that the natives have an interesting way of catching monkeys.  They tie down jars with narrow necks and put the monkeys' favorite foods inside.  The size of the neck is large enough that the monkey's open hand will fit through but small enough that once they grab the food, they can't pull their fist out.  All the monkeys have to do is let the food go and they can be free.  The monkeys however are more focused on getting the food they want.  They twist and turn and struggle and try everything they can to get that food out.  They keep doing that until the hunters return and it is too late to escape.

When you put a frog in a pot of scalding hot water, it will immediately jump out.  (Actually, if you put it anyplace unfamiliar, it will still likely not sit still.)  If the frog is in familiar surroundings, and you just raise the temperature a little, the frog will adapt and not try to escape.  If you keep slowly raising the temperature, it will keep adapting as long as it can.  Once it has reached the point where it can no longer adapt, though, it no longer has the energy to escape, and it will be stuck there, even if the temperatures get to boiling.

In India, elephants have traditionally been used as beasts of burden.  They may raise them from babies, but even so, they need to bring in fresh blood every so often so the gene pool doesn't degrade.  Catching a wild elephant is very difficult.  They couldn't possibly expend that effort continuously.  So they train the elephant by tying it by the leg to the largest tree around with the thickest chain or rope they have.  They then stand back and let the elephant struggle all it wants to.  It may take a long time, but eventually the elephant gives up.  They then tie a small rope around the elephant's leg, and even though it could easily break free, it no longer tries to.  It associates having a rope tied to its leg with being trapped and helpless.

People also refuse to give up what they want, even when it hurts them; keep making small changes to adapt rather than trying to escape their bad situation; and let past experiences limit them, even when what held them back before no longer has the same power.  These are all behaviors which we need to change if we want to make any progress on the Long Ascent.

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