An experiment with mice reveals a huge limitation in our thought process

I want to tell you a short story about mice.

Three of a kind. Image credit: Peter Wood.

Three of a kind. Image credit: Peter Wood.

Researchers wanted to see what mice would do when presented with a problem.

They set up a small room with a platform. There was no food in the room, and each mouse they put in the room was pretty hungry. The platform had a small jump with two doors, a left door and a right door. If the mouse jumped to the left, the door opened up to reveal some food. If the mouse jumped to the right side, they hit the door and fell into the net below.

Pretty straightforward.

Each mouse attempted a jump. Some chose the left and some chose the right. Over time, each mouse began learning that the left door contained food. The mice had learned about their environment. Soon enough, all the mice jumped for the left door every time. The food strengthened their routine and guided the mice. They knew where to go if they found themselves hungry again.  

Then the researchers tried something new.

They switched the doors around. Every mouse that jumped to the left hit the door and fell into the net. Some of the mice changed on the second jump and went for the right door. The food waited for them and bolstered their new choice.

Here's where it gets interesting.

The other mice, no matter how many times they hit the door and fell down, kept jumping left. The habit they developed became so ingrained that they expected food on the left.

After some number of jumps the left side mice each gave up. One by one. They sat in the room, willing to starve rather than make a different choice. 

These left jumping mice surprised the researchers. They started another test to see if they could urge those mice to choose the right side.

First, the researchers prodded the mice and blew air at them. The mice continued jumping for the left side door. The researchers then opened the right side door to show the mice the food contained within. Those mice continued jumping to the left, each time hitting the door and falling into the net below.

The mice started experiencing nervous breakdowns. Some collapsed onto the floor. Others ran around in circles. A few seemed to give up any form of motivation all together. A researcher could pick up a mouse by its tail while it hung there, uninterested in what happened to it.

To these mice, there was no other option other than the left door. It had worked before so many times, and there was no reason it shouldn't work again. 

Except it didn't.


This experiment show the dangers of a two-valued orientation. It's when we see problems as having two options. Jump or don't jump. The choice is either on or off. 

It's easy to see the mice in this example and think we'd never do that. That we'd try something new. But would we?

Imagine the following scenarios. Have the difficult conversation or say nothing. Be nice or be a jerk. Take action on an idea or sit around and ignore it. Get a job or be an entrepreneur. I'm either following my diet or spiraling out of control, unable to keep up with it. Recognize any of these? 

Or take another scenario. A parent tells their kid to clean their room. The kid refuses. The parent uses the same tactics, only putting on more pressure. The kid keeps resisting and tensions rise. Soon enough, it leads to a breakdown in the household. The parent can't fathom their kid ignoring them. The messy room becomes a trigger to blame the kid for all kinds of unrelated shortcomings.

This is the same as jumping for the same closed door over and over until it leads to a breakdown.

A two-valued approach is focusing on whether you agree or disagree with some new information. A multivalued approach asks why a person holds a view. The multivalued approach dives into the details of a view. 

Imagine I say the US is making a bad choice by declaring war on ISIS. How could you respond?

A two-valued approach focuses on agreeing or disagreeing. Someone taking this path might say why I'm wrong and go on to make "arguments". I respond with more "arguments" about why I'm right. If we're both college students, you can expect the conversation to go on for hours. Half driven by procrastination.

A mutlivalued approach asks why I hold that view. My stance tells you little about my own understanding of the situation. Asking why I felt that way gives you more information. You can walk away with a better understanding of the situation, of me, or of your own beliefs around the issue.

But by taking the two-valued approach, you agree or disagree and the learning ends there. 

A simpler way of looking at it is seeing how we view temperature. I might say it's too hot outside. That tells you nothing about the temperature. Focusing on the temperature itself, 83.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you get a more accurate reading. 

When we adopt multivalued approaches, learning skyrockets. We're able to adapt to situations create solutions. 

How is this utilized in education?

Lets' see. Looking for the right or wrong answer to your math homework. Using the "right" method.The importance of having an opinion. Picking a side in speech and debate clubs to argue the other side into submission. 

What happened to the learning? Our institutions seem to teach a two-valued approach.

Well, what's the goal of education? To prepare students to get jobs? To improve the quality of life?  To apply innovation to some of our most pressing problems? Or something else?

I'm going to generalize it a bit and suggest a more sweeping goal: To better equip students to solve pressing human problems.

The world is a series of problems to tackle. How to ensure everyone living in the world today has access to basic necessities. Getting kids access to better education. Making gender, racial, and economic disparities irrelevant on a person's ability to contribute value. Each one is a problem to solve. Thus our imperative is to give students the best tools to start solving some of those problems.

We want education to prepare children for the real world. To give them a map to navigate the world, their lives, and their relationships for the better.

Some people are challenging the two-valued orientation. Experience Institute out of Chicago proves over and over that experience is a valid form of higher education. Students can take the reins of their own education to create something special. Agreeing or disagreeing with trends evaporates in the face of getting involved. 

While adjusting the education system takes time, you can start using a multivalued approach in your own life. You'll expand your view of what's possible. You'll be more aware of and able to act on a wider variety of solutions to problems you face in life. You'll be an inspiration to those around you when you choose learning rather than yes or no responses to problems.

How do you start creating the shift? 

Let me give you an example of how I did it.

The other day on Reddit I saw a post about the UK loosening their copyright laws. My first reaction was a simple "I love this!", upvote, and move on. It's a simple two-valued approach. 

I remembered reading about the multivalued approach and tried using it. How did they get to this point? What impact would it have on artists and content producers? What type of market impact might result? What's the music industry response? What's the impact? How did British Parliament pull this off?

And so on.

Taking on a more multivalued response is as simple as recognizing there are more than two options. Start seeing things on a scale rather than as yes or no questions.

It's the same as going from "hot or cold" to 78.2 degrees outside. Again, hot or cold is the two-valued orientation. The actual temperature is a number along a scale. 

Let's assume your buddy disagrees with a policy Obama signed off on. Ask, what do they disagree with? What about the policy are they disappointed about? What parts do they like? You'll get a more detailed understanding of your friend's position.

When you encounter something that seems like a two-valued response, try getting more curious. Ask just a few more questions rather than deciding whether you agree or disagree. Focus more on learning about people's opinions than taking a stance. Worry less about your own opinion and more about learning. Take a chance on another door, even though the one you keep trying worked some point in the past. 

By doing this you give other people permission to focus on learning too. Over time that influence grows, as each of us push to learn more, until we reach a tipping point and create a cultural shift.

So go ahead. Take the chance. Make the decision to try a new door. Open up to more learning and contribute to the cultural shift we need.