Did you know that if you drop a frog in boiling water it will jump out? Not surprising; but did you know that if you place a frog in room temperature water and heat the water to boiling gradually... it will also jump out. Turns out frogs just don't like being boiled. You might have heard that story with a decidedly more grotesque ending wherein the proverbial frog fails to notice it's being boiled alive. It isn't so. While I've not boiled or scalded any frogs myself recently, I did do some casual research. In fact, if you're the type of person who goes around torturing frogs for the purpose of philosophical enlightenment, they have a nice room with padded walls and snazzy jacket awaiting your arrival.
Upon returning from my vacation, I was given ample reason to reflect on this proverb. As I like to base my world view in fact rather than apocryphal stories, oral history, or bronze age books of dubious origin, I looked up the unfortunate frog and discovered what I'd suspected. The story isn't actually true and attempts to recreate the scenario by scientists possessing questionable empathy for fellow animals have shown as much. The idea that this anecdote is attempting to illustrate is called creeping normality. Creeping normality is the phenomenon wherein a person or group of people will accept a large and possibly upsetting change if it comes on them gradually. The idea is similar to a slippery slope but applying less as a hypothetical and often fallacious argument and more as an observation of changes in a scenario beyond the subject's control.
There are other anecdotes that seek to demonstrate the similar lessons:
In Arab cultures: "If the camel once gets his nose into the tent, his body will soon follow."
In Russian cultures: "Offer him a finger, and he will bite a hand off up to the elbow."
In Finnish cultures: "Jos antaa pirulle pikkusormen, se vie koko käden" meaning "If you offer the devil a little finger, it takes the whole arm".
In Chinese cultures: "得陇望蜀" or "de long wang shu" which itself is a quotation from a longer work called the Book of Later Han which recounts the story of a General who took over Long only to pursue further south into Shu.
For me none of the alternative stories capture the idea of creeping normality so much as that of our nonobservant friend the frog.
Knowing that we are vulnerable to this failure to reason adequately can be useful. We should ask ourselves often: when is the water too hot? When has our normal changed such that we are no longer happy? When might another pond be more to our liking if we only make the leap? I asked myself this a few months ago and found it very necessary to make a change. Today, I'm asking myself this again. I'm wondering if the leap that I made was not quite far enough and perhaps landed me only in the next pot over. Will I be the frog of the proverb or will I be the frog of fact?
Human society often requires us to suppress our baser instincts. As thinking animals, we seek to delay gratification for the thought of possible greater reward. We often optimize for group improvement rather than individual prosperity or safety. In the working world, especially for men and especially in tech, we pride ourselves on our abilities to survive the storm. We make it wrong to cry out about what's wrong and we make it less OK to be less than OK. The questions that I would pose to no one in particular are: how often do we let ourselves be boiled alive and how often should we?
Creative Commons image used for banner. Image Credit: Jerry Bowley