Monday, January 5, 2009

Frog In Boiling Water Effect

Image by purpleslog via Flickr

In my ongoing attempt to adhere to Catherine Aird's statement, "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning," I thought I'd more closely examine the parable of the frog in boiling water.

Most of you have heard this didactic anecdote, usually presented as an example of how gradual habituation to a devilish situation leads to acceptance of an even worse one. It says if you put a frog in boiling water, he will try to escape. If you put him in cold water and heat it gradually, the frog will remain in place until he's boiled, because that's the lesson, to him (and consequently to us) gradual change is not perceivable.

I decided to determine whether there was any truth in this anecdote, or whether it was simply a wonderful example of a terrible warning.

One source from 1897 lists an experiment done in 1882 at Johns Hopkins Institute as evidence that "a live frog can actually be boiled without a movement if the water is heated slowly enough; in one experiment the temperature was raised at a rate of 0.002°C. per second, and the frog was found dead at the end of 2½ hours without having moved."

Subsequent experiments that supposedly proved the 1882 study incorrect contained a - shall we say "fatal" flaw - they increased the water temperature at a much faster rate than the original experiment. As least to me, it is clear that at a faster increase in temp, the frog's internal sensors will actually notice the increase and thus jump out of the water before it becomes a deadly bath. I liked the summation of Prof. Douglas Melton of Harvard's Biology Department, "If you put a frog in boiling water, it won't jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot -- they don't sit still for you."

So although there may be issues with underlying scientific truth of the frog in boiling water legend, as a parable it stands the test of time. For me the best use is in conjunction with any form of abusive behaviour. It's easy to deal with an employer or government or individual doling out a difficult task, and once you've done that, it's easier the next time and the next and the next, but pretty soon the water's coming to a boil and you don't even know it. That's how we get stuck in bad relationships, jobs, a myriad of horrendous situations.

So here's my advice:

* Love yourself. If you don't, who will?
* Learn to trust your body wisdom.
* Listen to that inner voice. Unless you're schizophrenic, in which case the next two items are essential points.
* It IS possible to be happy and have hope, and you deserve both.
* Don't be afraid to ask for help.
* Don't be afraid to give help.
* If your instinct is to run, DO IT. There's zero shame in self-preservation.
* Anyone who shames you for turning tail is best avoided.

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