There is a story of a man who went all over the world in search of wisdom. He wanted to know what makes human beings tick and how the world worked. His search took him into many different disciplines. He studied spiritual disciplines, going from one religion to another. He studied martial arts, athletics, yoga, and other physical disciplines. Then he searched in academic disciplines: mathematics, physics, economics, geography, geology, sociology, and anthropology. Finally he came to psychology.
By then, he had gathered some bits of wisdom about people and the world. But he had also figured out that there was a lot of speculation. He really wanted to cut to the heart of what psychology had to show him.
So he went to the library and looked for a book on psychology that he thought would be succinct and would contain the least speculation. He found a book that he thought would be just right for him. It was called ‘The Things that Psychology had Proved.’ As he read it, he discovered that what psychology had proved conclusively was that you can teach rats to run mazes and they will learn how to run the mazes faster and faster.
This is proven in an experiment that first year psychology students often do. You take a white rat and put him at the beginning of the maze. There are four possible exits. You place some cheese at the end of one of the tunnels. Let’s say you put it at the end of tunnel 4.
You put the rat in the maze. Down the first tunnel he goes, and there’s no food. The rat’s hungry, so he goes to the second tunnel; no cheese. Third tunnel; no cheese. In the fourth tunnel, he finally finds the cheese. Give the rat some time to get hungry and motivated again, and then put it back at the beginning of the maze with food again at the end of the fourth tunnel. The pattern repeats: First tunnel, second tunnel, third tunnel, no cheese. Finally the rat gets to the fourth tunnel and finds the cheese. Pretty soon, you get a smart rat. When you put him at the beginning of the maze, he heads straight to the fourth tunnel and finds the cheese right away.
Now you test your theory by moving the cheese to exit number 2 and see how long it takes for the rat to unlearn the old pattern and learn a new one. You put the rat at the beginning of the maze. Right down the fourth tunnel go goes. No exit, no food. He retraces his steps, confused.
Back and forth the rat goes, and you record how many times he goes back and forth. Soon the rat gets really hungry and gives up going down the fourth tunnel. He goes down the first tunnel, then the second tunnel, and finds the cheese. If you keep putting the cheese at the second tunnel, the rat will begin consistently heading down the second tunnel.
The man finishes the psychology book, puts it back on the shelf, and thinks, “There’s a big difference between rats and human beings. From what I’ve read so far, if rats get hungry, they will eventually go down a different tunnel. But human beings will go down the same tunnel over and over again, thinking that the cheese will eventually be there. If it was there once, certainly it will be there again.”
Could it be true that rats are smarter than human beings?
Some people will take a chair and sit at the end of the fourth tunnel, waiting. They think, “I’ll just hang out – I’m sure the cheese will be here soon.” They think things like: “It was here in the family I grew up in, so it’s got to be here.” Or: “It was here in my last relationship, so I’m sure it will be here.” Or: “It makes sense that it should be here, so I’ll just wait.”
All rats know is they are hungry and they haven’t yet found the cheese. On the other hand, human beings could eat their beliefs for decades.
If you’ve been sitting around on the same beliefs, thinking that eventually life will change. Ask yourself: What would the rat do?
*If you’re interested in more, the key reference for this article was: Do One Thing Different by Bill O’Hanlon.