An interesting experiment was conducted in the 1950’s by a scientist named Curt Richter. In that experiment, the man took a dozen domesticated rats and placed them into jars half filled with water. Unsurprisingly, the rats drowned, but the idea was to measure the amount of time they swam before they gave up and went belly up.
“The first rat”, Richter noted, “swam around and died two minutes later.” Two more of the 12 domesticated rats died in pretty much the same way. But, interestingly, the nine remaining rats did not succumb nearly so readily; they swam for days before they eventually gave up and died.
A second time, Richter conducted the experiment with wild rats, renowned for their swimming abilities.
What’s worth noting is that the ones he used had been recently trapped and were fierce and aggressive.
One by one, he dropped them into the water, and one by one, they surprised him: Within minutes of entering the water, all drowned.
“What kills these rats?” he wondered. “Why do all of the fierce, aggressive, wild rats die promptly upon immersion and only a small number of the similarly treated tame domesticated rats?”
The answer, in one word: Hope.
You see, the wild rats clearly understood that there was no way they would get out of this jar. They understood that they were in a situation against which they have no defense. So they “gave up.”
Richter, later, tweaked the experiment a little bit. He took other wild rats and placed them in the jar. But, right before they were expected to die, he picked them up, held them a little while, and then placed them back in the jar. “In this way,” he wrote, “the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless.”
As it appears, this small “pause” made a huge difference. The rats that experienced a brief reprieve swam much longer and outlasted the rats that were left alone.
When the rats learned that they were not doomed and that the situation was not lost, they had a reason to keep swimming—and they did. It made them not give up so easily.
“After elimination of hopelessness,” wrote Richter, “the rats do not die.”
So how is that relevant to us?
Obviously, humans are quite different from rats, but one similarity stands out: we all need a reason to keep swimming.
So hope obviously serves an important function: it’s a primal survival-based mechanism embedded within us. But hope gets a bad reputation these days. People hear the word and dismiss it as doe-eyed, wishy-washy, emotional fluff.
But that is missing the point. You see, hoping is not the same as wishing or dreaming: it is regulated by an assessment of the possibility and, unlike a dream or a fantasy, that possibility has to exist even if the odds are slim.