Drowning Rats: The Hope Experiment

The Drowning Rats Experiment
Drowning Rats: The Harvard Study

When was the last time that you felt dejected in life? 

On approaching someone to share your feelings with, did you get the reply “Don’t give up, have hope” and found it to be an impractical solution? Well, Dr. Curt Richter’s Harvard Rat Study will prove you wrong and reinstill your belief in the power of ‘hope’.

The Drowning Rats Experiment

Richter, an American psycho-biologist assessed ‘drowning rats’ and how long it takes for them to die. As per today’s awareness regarding ethical experimentation, his procedure would sound cruel but the findings that he has derived from it are very fascinating.

Drowning Rats: The Hope Experiment
A cruel experiment that demonstrates the role of HOPE

The basic structure of the drowning rats hope experiment involved noticing the behavior of rats when they were immersed in buckets full of water. Richter furthermore varied different factors in the research to come to his conclusions about the role of ‘hope’ in perseverance.

Experiment I: Domestic Rats

The first step of the ‘hope experiment’ involved observing 12 domesticated drowning rats. A quarter of these rats began by floating around the surface of the water for some time and then plunging inside the bucket to understand the interior of the bucket. This entire process took place for a time span of two minutes following which they drowned.

However, the other nine rats displayed dissimilar behavior. They explored the bucket in its entirety and then kept swimming to stay afloat in the bucket. After days of survival, they eventually succumbed, probably due to fatigue and drowning.

Experiment II: Wild Rats

The next phase of this Harvard rat swimming experiment took place with freshly caught wild and aggressive rats. Trained by the forces of nature, these 34 rats could swim very well, thus forming the hypothesis that these wild drowning rats would strive for their life. To Richter’s surprise, this was not the case. Infact, all of these untamed drowning rats died within a few minutes. Skills that they had derived from their worldly savvy were all in vain.

A Physiological Reaction or Hopelessness?

After assessing the huge difference between the reaction of the domesticated and the wild rats, Dr. Richter felt that since the domesticated drowning rats have experienced the presence of a support system (in contrast with the wild ones), they are hopeful and thus can put in the best of their efforts to save their lives. 

He expressed:

The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight — it is rather one of hopelessness… the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense… they seem literally to ‘give up.

To elaborate his findings, he further changed some settings in the experiment.

Hope and the Drowning Rats Experiment
Hope and the Drowning Rats Experiment

The Hope Experiment

Now, he wanted to find out the relation between hope and perseverance in the drowning rats. As per his above mentioned statement, he hypothesized that hopefulness would make the rats fight for their survival more actively. So, he began this phase of his experiment by leaving homogeneous rats in buckets filled with water. However, when the rats drowned and were on the verge of dying, they were saved by the experimenter. They were laid down on towels, dried off and made steady.

Once the rats had recovered, the rats were put under the previous circumstances again. This time, it was noticed that the drowning rats would swim on and on. The duration for which they could survive surpassed the earlier time lengths.

Conclusion of the Experiment

In the last condition, the only variable that had changed was that the drowning rats had been saved. Thus, they were made aware of the feeling of hope. Since they swam for a longer time, therefore, Richter’s hypothesis stood true, he thus established that “after elimination of hopelessness the rats do not die”.

Even though rats and humans are very different animals, these tiny creatures give us an important lesson. They teach us that when we are hopeful about the outcomes of a situation, our perseverance and willingness to put in efforts are also more. So, if we don’t have hope, we can reach a position where we would not attempt to save our lives. You should always try to find inspiration to improve your perseverance.

It was rightly said by Samuel Johnson that “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope”.

To understand more about yourself and your mind, begin your journey of hope with the Evolve App now. Download the app and start your free trial.

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