Shocking Rats, Uncertainty, And What It Says About Happiness

There’s an experiment where scientists take three rats and offer each some water. The first rat gets shocked whenever it goes for a drink. The second rat gets a shock 50% of the time (at random). The third rat never gets a shock. Take a moment and rank the rats from “happiest” to “least happy.”


The rat who never gets shocked is happiest. That one should be easy. The surprise is numbers two and three. The rat who gets shocked every time is actually almost as happy as the rat who never gets shocked at all and comes in second. It’s the rat who never knows if it’s going to get shocked or not that is least happy (and actually quite miserable).


Rat cruelty aside – we all hate uncertainty. We would rather know we’re going to be uncomfortable than to be left uncertain about if and when the next negative shock will be delivered. Considering the inherent uncertainty of our personal lives and markets, we need methods to help smooth the expectations. Note we’re not removing the shocks, but we are dealing with the anticipation problem.


The best defense includes setting realistic anticipations, not necessarily assumptions. We want to find a balance between natural optimism, anticipatory pessimism, and pragmatic negativity. In other words, we should set our optimistic baseline, acknowledge the painful but normal blowups we’ll expect along the way, and then pragmatically explain what our process is doing to avoid getting stuck in a worst-case scenario. This avoids blind optimism, failing to anticipate that it won’t all be easy and painless, or getting stuck in a permanently negative mindset.


Take a tip from the rats: the awareness and anticipation of pain actually make it more tolerable. Comfort is always going to be relative and that’s what makes it subjective. Random shocks suck. Expected shocks will still sting – but if our anticipations are set, we can breeze through them. Like a nurse warning we’ll feel a slight pinch before a shot, it’s all about communication. Our job is not to eliminate the pain, but to curate the relationship with it and the expectations around it.

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