There are two aspects to hope that I am going to talk about in this article and both will demonstrate just how important hope is in any endeavour, including survival. Maybe even especially survival. One aspect is self-reliance, and the other is being reliant on others. Both are equally important in hope. First though, we have to get through a little bit of dark research from the 1950s.
Dr. Curt “The Rat Torturer” Richter conducted some studies on rats with a few different variables including domestic rats, wild rats, hybrid rate, and shaved whiskers. I’m not going to get overly graphic with the research because quite frankly much of it seems pointless and cruel to me, but it is important to know that the research was based on how long rats would swim for and how long it took for them to drown. We’ll start with looking at self-reliance first. What Richter found was that rats who had their whiskers shaved would give up swimming and drown considerably faster than those with whiskers. Essentially, when a rat lost it’s ability to interact with its environment and rely on it’s senses, it gave up hope and simply let itself die. It’s grim. King Solomon sums this up perfectly, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Hope is such an important aspect of not just achieving goals, but maintaining life itself.
In psychological terms, this would appear to be the beginning of learned helplessness. This occurs when a person has low efficacy (they don’t believe they can achieve their objective).. Now, in the case of the rats all of them in reality had no chance of controlling their environment at all. However, rats with whiskers had a higher belief and would fight harder and for longer.
The second part of interest is with regards to the difference between wild and domesticated rats. Wild rats, those who are suspicious by nature didn’t last as long as domesticated rats. A very interesting aspect to this (if you are a bit nerdy) is that the domesticated rats were picked out of the water from time to time and left to dry off and run around. They began to learn their environment would rescue them. The results showed that while some rats, primarily the wild ones, would give up and die within 15 minutes, the domesticated rats who had been rescued would swim for 60 hours or more. They learned that there is a reason to keep going. In basic terms, they learned hope. The reality is that they had no idea their world was completely under the control of an outside source, but they believed that by keeping going they would survive, which they did, at least for a while longer.
In summary, when a rat did not feel it has the self-sufficiency to survive, it gave up quickly. When a rat felt that their world was not going to offer survival, it gave up. Hope is a double-faceted thing requiring both, the belief that we can achieve our goals, and also the belief that we can somehow impact our environment. So here’s the tricky part. The reality is that we don’t know what our environment will bring. We can prepare as much as we want but we are all only one phone call away from our world falling apart. We are also only one phone call away from our world being better than ever. Our environment can bring many surprises, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare ourselves (in a healthy way, not a tinfoil hat wearing, stockpile AR15s, and a belief that everything is out to get us kind of way) to meet challenges head on.
There are some lessons we can learn from these rats, the same traps we fall into as humans when we are struggling.
1 – Just because the rat’s whiskers were trimmed, it had nothing at all to do with their survival. In a natural environment swimming for 60 hours would likely have seen them live, whether through being washed up somewhere, or finding something to climb on, they could have made it in the same situation in the wild. They gave up because of low self-efficacy. They would have done the same in the wild.
2 – Trust in the environment is just as important as belief in self. This is Erikson’s very first stage of development – trust versus mistrust – will the world be a place I can trust or not? Scary to think that the first few months of life can build a foundation for the rest of your life, including the ability to believe in yourself and achieve goals.
3 – The most important thing to take away from this is that hope is learned. Contrary to the current idea that if you lend support to someone they will come to be relient on it and keep expecting help, this experiment shows us that if you teach hope, they work harder to stay afloat. So if you are in a situation where you have the ability to help someone out of a sticky situation, do so. You’ll be helping them to be stronger in the future and help others. If you leave them to struggle, well, unless someone else comes along and does help them the future is bleak. We can truly turn someone’s future around simply by offering a helping hand, why wouldn’t we take the opportuntity to do so if it arises?
Overall, the message to be learned is that there are three components to achieving goals and being successful. Two areas we own – self-belief and a belief we can change our world. The third is believing the world will be good to us, and the world delivering on this belief. Of these, I have come to believe that the third of these components is the most important because unless that happens, and unless we positively impact others, how can the first two be learned?
Richter, C. P. (1957). On The Phenomenon Of Sudden Death In Animals And Man. Psychopathology, 19(3), 191-198.