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Behavioral sink (also known as the Mouse Utopia Experiments) is a hypothesis proposed by ethologist John B. Calhoun after a series of experiments about overcrowding in rodents. on the rat experiment. It is popular among groups within the manosphere due to some of its results reinforcing their narratives over societal behaviors. Despite that (or maybe because of that) the experiments have been divisive among the scientific community with some praising the results and other criticizing and disputing the extrapolation onto humans. Curiously the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH that later became the movie The Secret of NIMH was inspired by these experiments mostly carried out by the National Institute of Mental Health.
The first experiments were made between 1947 and 1951 using 32 to 56 Norwegian rats in a 10×14-foot case in a barn. As the rats were provided with food, water, nesting materials and protection from predators it was called "Utopia". The case was divided in four interconnected rooms able to hold a dozen rats each. With time, the rats started to show bizarre conducts. Some of the behaviors observed included:
- Some dominant males made harems, taking control over several female rats to mate with them. Interestingly the dominant males allowed some males to remain although these males exhibited odd behavior, as rather than try to mate with the females the males would attempt to mate with the dominant male and the dominant male would let them.
- Some females made groups and created their own territories living together and violently rejecting any male approaching, with no apparent interest in breeding.
- Of those that did breed, strange behaviors started to show, like violently attacking the infants (this is not uncommon, for some reason rodents sometimes eat their offspring) or stopping caring for the offspring long before it was normal. Those who survived were often unprepared to care for their own offspring once they had them.
- High infant mortality rate.
- Some males still tried to mate even if that caused them to suffer violence from stronger males.
- Sporadic and unexplained violence. Some males were frequent recipients of violence that they had to endure because there was no escape.
- Homosexual behavior in some males.
- Some rats just kept themselves isolated from the rest, not interacting with them nor trying to mate, dedicating most of their time to grooming. These were called "the beautiful ones" precisely because they spent a lot of time cleaning themselves.
- Three groups of male non dominant rats were defined:
- Group 1: The Pansexuals; These rats wouldn't compete for social standing spending their time rummaging around the enclosure attempting to mate with any other rats regardless of age or gender and their advances would often go unchallenged.
- Group 2: The Somnabulists; This group was simply described as fat, sleek and healthy looking ignoring the other rats and being mostly ignored by them.
- Group 3: The Probers; The weirdest of the 3 groups these rodents were hyperactive and hyper sexual pursuing females in heat despite suffering numerous injuries from the dominant rats. The Probers would also cannibalize their young instead of caring for them.
- After the experiment concluded Calhoun took the 4 healthiest males and females out of the enclosure but their behavior was altered to the point that they could no longer care for their young as their pups all died shortly after weening.
The experiment was stopped when conditions of the rodents became too extreme even for the ethical standards of the time. A second experiment was made in the 1970s with a 101-inch square cage and using mice, reaching a population about 2200 mice. He liked to call his cages "universes". Its first study’s result were published in 1962 in Scientific American titled: Population Density and Social Pathology. Calhoun feared that some of these behaviors may happened in human society among highly crowded areas like most big cities leading to civilization and societal collapse. Calhoun performed several experiments using albino mice using even composition of male and female that had just reached maturity. Half were performed with 32 mice and the other half performed with 56. In the most famous experiment "Universe 25" Calhoun found four distinct phases. These phases were named:
- Phase A: Adjustment Days 0-104, this was before any new mice were born and was marked by "considerable social turmoil" as they adjusted to themselves and their expanded new surroundings.
- Phase B: Exploitation Days 104-315, This is when the population began increasing, doubling every 5 days and the brood began clumping despite no influence from the cage design.
- Phase C: Stagnation Days 315-560, This is when the mice behavior began to mirror those of the rat experiments as a large clump of outcast male mice formed in the center of the cage and would violently attack one another. with nowhere to retreat the victim would simply lay still until it was over. The outcast females however formed small groups in the upper apartments living quietly with each other. This is also when the behavior sink took full effect as mice clumped near some hoppers while others remained untouched. The dominant males began to be overwhelmed with the amount of new males reaching sexual maturity and didn't have the energy to defend their territory leaving it to the females. This caused the females to become more aggressive even towards their own young and kick them out of nest before they were done weening. The added stress would also cause the mice to leaving young behind when moving nests and reabsorb young in the womb which in turn with the other factors caused fertility rates to plummet.
- Phase D: Death Days 560-X, This generation of mice was denoted by a generation of young rejected and abused by their parents and "The death of societal organisation". The females of this generation had little to no parental skills leaving them unable to care for young after weening. The males of this generation were dubbed the "beautiful one's" and exhibited peculiar behaviors as "They never engaged in sexual approaches towards females, and they never engaged in fighting, and so they had no wound or scar tissue thus their pelage was in excellent condition. Their behavioral repertoire became largely confined by eating, drinking, sleeping and grooming none of which carried any social implications beyond that represented by contiguity of bodies". Calhoun predicted that after the last males with reproductive instincts died the colony would die around day 1061.
Extrapolations of the findings
Shortly after the first experiment was published many people began to relate Calhoun's experiments to modern city life usually seen as a grim reflection of society's future with many at the time concerned in the rise of social deviancy. This was encouraged by Calhoun's provocative language and how the cages used were modeled after apartment complexes seen in modern cities at the time. One psychologist Carl Rogers in his work "Some Social Issues Which Concern Me" (published Oct 1, 1972) stated that "The resemblance to human behavior is frightening. In humans we see poor family relationships, the lack of caring, the alienation, the magnetic attraction of overcrowding, the lack of involvement which is so great it allows people to watch a long drawn out murder without so much as calling the police. Perhaps all cities dwellers are inhabitants of a behavioral sink?".
As mentioned before some people extrapolate Calhoun's findings to modern society. Among them is Stefan Molyneux, but the experiments are also popular topics of MGTOWS and Incels. Some of the alleged parallels are:
- Isolated females that reject males are radical feminists.
- The "beautiful ones" are metrosexual versions of MGTOWS, Volcels, and everyone who seems uninterested in female companionship (and are the counterpart of the radical feminists).
- The behavior of the "beautiful ones" has also been compared to the increase in asocial behavior of millennials as they prefer to stay home than go out. The rise of abstinence in Japanese youths has also been mentioned.
- The isolating ones are also compared to the Hikikomori phenomenon, and also the Herbivore men, both terms for Japanese men who prefer personal grooming and introspective pursuits instead of seeking female companionship.
- Sporadic acts of violence caused by sexually frustrated males are like our modern mass shootings.
- The mistreatment and neglect of the offspring runs parallel to modern bad parenting and high divorce rates.
- Overt homosexual behavior in modern society
- Applying the unscientific glossary that they use in humans to the rats like "alpha male" and "beta male" (which is anti-scientific in itself) or homologous to some of the rodents' behavior with their current narrative (white knights, nice guys, etc.).
Among some of the problems that these groups show while interpreting Calhoun's finding are:
- Cherry picking: the rodents show lots of behavior that humans do not show, nor even in their narratives, yet they pick the ones that have some parallel as evidence that the same thing is happening.
- Correlation does not imply causation: Calhoun's experiments had no control group, several factors may have caused the effects observed like inbreeding and confinement, which human societies don't have.
- Anthropomorphism: humans and rodents are very different and some of the rodents' behavior has been observed in some other situations without crowding. There's a humanization of the rats to some degree applying them human characteristics and reasoning behind their actions.
Disputing the findings
First, it is important to mention that Calhoun was a legitimate scientist and his research, albeit controversial, was scientific in nature. Nevertheless some of the criticism presented on his work includes:
- Lack of control group.
- Lack of genetic diversity. The rodent populations may have been too small to have a healthy genetic pool, leading to inbreeding. Some of the behaviors, in fact, may be explained by inbreeding, for example high infant mortality rates and psychotic behavior. This however could only play a factor in half the experiments as the minimum population was too high using the 50/500 rule since 56 mice were introduced in the beginning. There were also too few generations of mice to allow for genetic drift to play a significant factor.
- Space. The areas were small even for rodents.
- Soon after publication, studies were conducted in dense urban environments and found that humans would react differently and even opposite to how the rats reacted, leaving most of these studies as inconclusive. Overall no evidence could be found of a behavioral sink in the areas researched.
Other possible explanations
- The rats instinctively knew that in such closed environment keeping their normal reproduction rate would eventually lead to problems, causing abnormal behaviors like refraining from mating or killing the offspring in abnormal numbers.
- Lack of recreation for the rats. Scientists in the 1950s were not as aware as today of animal intelligence. The general thought was that animals just care for food and breeding and if that was provided they won't need more. Today we know that most mammals and birds require entertainment and that high levels of stress due to confinement and/or lack of recreational activities may cause neurosis and violent behavior in social animals.
- Incest. As mentioned above the genetic diversity wasn’t the best and could lead to some pathologies.
- Overcrowding did it. Yes of course that is a perfectly valid explanation. Similar behaviors have been observed in chickens in industrial farms for example including violent outbursts and cannibalism. Closed, crowded environments with no natural light or fresh air tend to make animals crazy (and who can blame them). In fact similar experiments were conducted in prisons (the only human environment that could be really similar) and indeed there are similarities among the prison social structures and how the rats and mice under Calhoun's experiments behave.
There's no doubt that overcrowding in big cities causes all sorts of psychological and behavioral problems. These have been scientifically researched and observed. Nevertheless one has to be careful not to use scientific findings to push a political agenda, particular narrative or anthropocentric worldview.
- Hall, Edward, T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension: An Anthropologist Examines Humans' Use of Space in Public and in Private. Anchor Books. p. 25. ASIN B0006BNQW2.
- "Population Density and Social Pathology". Retrieved 2015-12-14.
- Calhoun, John B. (1962). "Population density and social pathology". Scientific American 206 (3): 139–148. PMID 13875732.
- NLM Announces the Public Release of the Papers of John B. Calhoun, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013-10-13.
- "The Behavioral Sink". Cabinet Magazine. Summer 2011. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
- Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding Template:Webarchive, nih record, 2013-10-13.
- Calhoun, J. B. (1970). "Population density and social pathology". California medicine 113 (5): 54. PMC 1501789. PMID 18730425.
- "The Mouse Utopia Experiments". Fredrik Knudsen. 2017. Retrieved 2017.