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What This Rat Experiment Teaches Us About Hope

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What was supposedly an experiment to measure how long rats swim in glass jars before giving up to drown and die, turned out to provide a powerful insight on resilience and hope.

The HOPE Experiment

In the 1950’s, Curt P. Richter, a professor from Johns Hopkins and a Harvard graduate, conducted a harsh experiment on domesticated and wild rats to determine how long they would survive when forced to swim in a glass jar. 

On the outset of his experiment, 3 out of the 12 domesticated rats died after two minutes. Interestingly, the remaining 9 survived for as long as 60 hours.

For the next set, Richter prepared 34 untamed and wild rats.

a photo of scientist Curt Richter

Initially, he assumed that the wild ones would generally last longer than their domesticated counterparts as they were more aggressive and were more likely to fight harder for survival.

All 34 savage rats, however, died within minutes of entering the water.

This baffled Richter. 

He wrote:

What kills these rats?

Why do all of the fierce, aggressive, wild rats die promptly on immersion and only a small number of the similarly treated, tame, domesticated rats?


The Conclusion is HOPE

Yes, it all boils down to hope. Hope—the belief that certain things will happen.

According to Richter, “The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are… confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense… they seem literally to “give up.”

Following this line of thinking, Richter introduced a variable in the experiment: right before the rats “give up”, Richter would pick them up, hold them for a few minutes and put them back in the jar for a second round.

“In this way,” Richter noted, “the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless.”

Since the rats believed that they would be saved eventually, they held out much longer. With a little hope, an initial record of 120 seconds stretched out to an overwhelming period of 60 hours.

“After elimination of hopelessness,” wrote Richter, “the rats do not die.”

Although there’s an immense difference between human beings and rats, there is one startling truth we can learn from Richter’s cruel experiment and that is we all need a reason to keep swimming.

It’s the possibility that keeps me going; not the guarantee.

— Nicholas Sparks

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