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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 MGTOWs, alt-rights, MRAs and other similarly-minded groups due to some of its results kind of reinforcing their narrative over societal behavior. 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, having control over several female rats to mate.
- 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 sometime eat their offspring) or stopped caring for the offspring long before it was normal. Those who survived were often unprepared themselves 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 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.
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.
As mentioned before some people happily 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 male 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 isolating ones are also compare to the Hikikomori phenomenon.
- 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.
- Space. The areas were small even for rodents.
With all that considered, it might not be such a utopia after all.
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". http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/population-density-and-social-patho/. 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. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/42/wiles.php. 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. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pmcentrez&artid=1501789.
- "The Mouse Utopia Experiments". Fredrik Knudsen. 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgGLFozNM2o. Retrieved 2017.