Rat Productivity

The earliest recorded behavioral experiment with rats took place around 250 BC.

            Li Si was a native of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth he served as a petty clerk in the province. In the privy of the clerks’ quarters he saw how the rats ate the filth and how, when people or dogs came near, they were frequently alarmed and terrified. And when he entered the storehouse he saw how the rats in the storehouse ate the heaps of grain and lived under a big roof, never having to worry about people or dogs. Li Si sighed and said, ‘Whether a man turns out to be worthy or good-for-nothing is like the rats—it all depends on the surroundings he chooses for himself!’ (Sima Qian, Shi ji, translated by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 1, Qin Dynasty [New York: Columbia University Press, 2002], p. 179.)

We who teach in colleges are generally lucky rats in Li Si’s terms, especially if tenured. But measures of well-being do not correlate with an absolute or static level of comfort; beyond a certain level, the marginal utility of increased income tapers off. What makes academics happy is engagement, participation in discovery, and a sense of control.

In a global health organization I work with, we have found in many resource-poor settings that the effect of salary raises on the subjective well-being of clinicians is negligible compared to the effect of giving doctors and nurses the tools they need to do their work well. And doctors and nurses who are satisfied with their work conditions are better at helping their patients. This strategy of enhancing effectiveness has been notably useful in counteracting brain drain among medical personnel in poor countries.

Li Si forgot to compare the productivity of the two groups of rats (in his defense, it’s hard to see what a measure of rat productivity would be). But any academic behaviorist can. The best times in my career have been when I’ve had a strong posse of like-minded people working with me to expand a frontier of knowledge or teaching; the worst have been years when colleagues wasted each other’s time with bickering, squabbling over shrinking resources, defending positions or undercutting each other. And when I think back over the causes, I note that the main factors creating a negative climate for the “life of the mind” have been, ultimately, administrative. If someone wanted to “disrupt” (in the old sense of the word) teaching and research in a certain sector, there is no easier way than to institute a competition for shrinking resources. That will hinder new projects from developing, reward non-cooperative behavior by actors who are less affected by the diminished resources, and reduce commitment by those who have other outlets for their energies, not to mention distracting attention from the things that brought us here in the first place. And if the resources are shrunk in an abrupt, startling, non-transparent way, without discussion of alternative scenarios or opportunities to cooperate in managing scarcity, you’ll have some disturbed rats.