October 3, 2020

The “Frog-Mouse Dilemma”: should you keep adapting to change or simply quit?

By – Sarang Mahajan, Pursuing Ph.D. In Neuroscience

Heraclitus is often quoted saying: The only constant in the life is change.” Indeed, change is inevitable and spans nearly all things. We usually face change every single day, if not every single hour. The change can be a single adjustment in the work schedule disrupting the rest of the day, a non-routine behavior by one of our parents, a verbal spat with a colleague following a change in their mood, a prince charming turning into a torturous psychopath, a change in the job market conditions prompting us to reconsider our whole career path, or a worldwide climate change. One can only begin to recount potential changes and usually has limited capacity to respond to all them.

Change as a predator

Metaphorically speaking, change resembles a predator trying to wreak havoc on the order in our lives. Hence, and in order to keep up with this predator and stay ahead, we often choose to struggle (and perhaps resist) continuously. This struggle is an adaptive mechanism that tends to bring us out of our comfort zone.

Change on the outside often leads to a change on the inside

While going through this struggle, we are susceptible to a great degree of emotional and psychophysical transformations. These transformations can be transient or everlasting and are often a hybrid of the good, the bad, and the ugly traits, e.g., it can make us more confident, or it can also lead us to a point where we believe that we are not worthy of anything; it can bring us happiness, or it can also torment us with anxiety and depression. 

This fusion of emotions has an immense influence on our mental health and sound judgment, which are crucial for making productive decisions 2,3. As our struggle journey continues, we consume almost all of our time and energy in fighting the predator. And amidst this intense combat, we often fail to judge wisely whether is the effort is still worth it.

Every single human being goes through this juncture at some point in their lives, and we are often clueless about what needs to be done. A simple approach to dealing with this situation is thus warranted. In its core, the approach presented herein relies on our ability to exhibit the right traits in the right circumstances.

The boiling ‘Frog’

As the name suggests, this is a fable of a frog that’s been boiled alive. The story starts with a breathing frog being placed in a pot full of water. The fire is lit under the pot and the temperature of the water increases gradually. The frog which is immersed in water senses a slight change in temperature and spends most of its energy trying to cope with the changes. The water temperature keeps on increasing, and the frog keeps on adjusting, until it no longer can.

There comes a breaking point wherein the frog has already exhausted all of its energy and it can no longer adapt to the changes or even jump outside. At this point, the poor frog has no other option but to remain still inside the water and boil to death. This is called the boiling frog phenomenon or syndrome4 from which most of us suffer. We generally fail to recognize the lethal patterns within the subtle changes, and by the time we realize it, we are out of energy and it is often too late. 

The quitter ‘Mouse’

When performing reinforcement learning experiments, psychologists and neuroscientists tend to train mice to perform reward associated tasks 5 wherein an animal is provided with a stimulus and it has to respond appropriately in order to earn the reward. Initially the mouse is trained to perform a very simple task followed by more complex ones. With this, the amount of work that the animal must do in order to get the reward also increases. 

Most of the time, and as the complexity of task is being increased; the mouse still tries to perform the task, but it quits just before it is about to finish and get the reward. What is remarkable is not the failure but the fact that it quits when it was so close to finish line. This is exactly what we humans do as well. We keep on working hard for things, and by the time we are about to reap the benefits of that hard work, we lose all our hope and give up. 

The Frog-Mouse Dilemma 

Following the fable of the boiling frog and the gloomy truth about the mouse that quit, the dilemma we face in everyday life becomes quite clear. Both animals are placed in increasingly difficult circumstances, each makes the opposite choice to the other, and both are wrong. The frog chooses to fight when it should have quit, and the mouse chooses to quit when it should have persisted.

We face similar situations wherein we are unable to decide whether we should continue to struggle for something, or it is time we call it off. In such a situation, we often fail to assess and comprehend what we are going to lose or gain if we quit or continue. It is the conflict that paralyzes our sense of judgment and decision-making capabilities, resulting in a lack of ability to make intelligent decisions. But is there a way by which we can resolve this conflict? 

Resolving the inner conflict

If we pay close attention to the dilemma, we will realize that the conflict can be easily resolved if we interchange the characters of the story. If in the fable, we had a mouse and frog in the reward associated task, based on their metaphoric characteristics as per the stories, the mouse will jump out of the boiling water, and the frog will work tirelessly and earn the reward. 

Contrary to public opinion, there is a solution to this conflict, and if we wish to find it, the first step that we need to follow is this: “Honesty is the best policy.” Yes, start with being honest with yourself and critically ask what lies on the other side of the wall that you are trying to break. A comprehensive analysis of the cost that you will incur during the process and the rewards that you will reap will be a good exercise that will enable you to get a glimpse of the consequences.

The majority of cost factors that we might incur are emotionally relevant. Thus, if the costs are linked to your negative traits, e.g., ego, hatred, jealousy, tendency to dominate, narcissism, ignorance etc. it will be helpful for you to remain consistent and follow the frog’s trajectory, which is to adapt. If these traits are the reasons for you to complain and thereby quit, you will never be able to overcome any challanges because these peculiarities will remain intact within you and will hinder you as you move towards success. This way, you will always end up being a quitter mouse.

If, on the other hand, the costs include something that will affect and can cause permanent irreversible damage on attributes like self-respect, peace of mind, ethics, physical and mental wellbeing, then it is not worth continuing for. It would be best if you don’t end up being like that frog who spends all of his hopes and energy on doing something futile. At last, the way you take up challenges will define the extent of this ‘Frog- Mouse Dilemma,’ and your ability to be honest, critical and delicate towards yourself will absolutely show you a way out.  

References

1.       Van Valen, L. A new evolutionary law. Evol. Theor. 1, 1–30 (1973).

2.       Kuppens, P., Realo, A. & Diener, E. The Role of Positive and Negative Emotions in Life Satisfaction Judgment Across Nations. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 95, 66–75 (2008).

3.       Jackson, M. The stress of life: a modern complaint? Europe PMC Funders Group. Lancet 383, 300–301 (2014).

4.       Mohd. Ramli, N. & Faridah, Y. The boiling frog syndrome: A radiologist’s perspective. Biomed. Imaging Interv. J. 6, 6–7 (2010).

5.       Abraham, N. M., Guerin, D., Bhaukaurally, K. & Carleton, A. Similar Odor Discrimination Behavior in Head-Restrained and Freely Moving Mice. PLoS One 7, 1–9 (2012).

6.       Pavlov, I. P. Conditioned reflexes: an investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Oxford Univ. Press.