The Boiling Frog Syndrome

Suppose you are a frog and you are caught loitering in someone’s backyard and put in a pot with cold water, with the temperature rising slowly. What would you do? Let’s make things a little more interesting, suppose you are caught and you are released on the condition that you will never be found in the backyard only to be caught again and put in a pot of boiling water. What would you do?

Well, according to some experiments carried out in the 19th century, if you, a frog, is put in lukewarm water, with the temperature rising slowly, you will not perceive any danger to yourself and will be cooked to death. However, if you are suddenly put into a pot of boiling water, you will jump out and save yourself from impending steamy demise.

Why is this the case?

According to the boiling frog syndrome theory, since the frog is only slightly uncomfortable with cold water and its subsequent warming surroundings, the frog keeps trying to adjust and get used to its environment, believing that the slow, gradual rise in temperature is normal. Only when the slow change eventually starts accelerating does the frog realize it cannot do anything about the grave situation as it has already lost its ability to jump out.

On the other hand, the theory suggests that, if a frog is suddenly put in boiling water, it will jump out since it will immediately know it is in a grave situation. In this case, the frog will have no time to adapt or get used to its situation.

While some experiments carried out in the19th-century suggested that the underlying premise is true. Modern biologists have claimed that the premise is not true. Modern biologists argue that a frog that is put in cold water that is gradually heated will jump out since changing location is a natural thermoregulation strategy for frogs and other animals and is thus necessary for survival.

Thus, contemporary scientists do not buy into this currently discredited observation. However, as a metaphor, this observation or theory can refer to many situations that we live in our lives. This story of you as a frog is perfectly apt and is often used as a metaphor for peoples’ inability or unwillingness to react to or be aware of grave threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly. In other words, the term “boiling frog syndrome” is used to describe the failure to act against a situation that will increase in severity until reaching catastrophic proportions whereby no actions can reverse or stop the situation.

What is frightening is that the human equivalent of the Boiling Frog syndrome is witnessed more commonly than we would like to admit. As an example, your spouse who sees you daily will not notice that you have been gaining weight, but a distant relative who sees you only once a year will quickly notice the added fat around your belly.

The boiling frog syndrome as a story has been retold countless times to help explain and understand widely varying viewpoints: For example, in illustrating sympathy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War; in illustrating about inaction in response to dire-looking future of irreversible climate change; in warnings about staying in abusive relationships; and in warning about the slow erosion of civil liberties.

The boiling frog syndrome also applies to the business world. For instance, there are countless ‘boiling frogs’ that we encounter in the business world. For example, investors who suffered millions of losses by failing to notice warning signs in the economy, until the changes started accelerating leading to a global financial crisis of 2007-2009. Another example would be businesses that failed to acknowledge their innovative competitors such as Kodak film vs. digital cameras, Myspace vs. Facebook, Walmart vs. Amazon, and BlackBerry vs. Apple.

As shown in these examples, the boiling frog syndrome can refer to many situations in our lives. Though we have to adjust and adapt to some situations and relationships we encounter, we should only do so to a certain point. In this respect, we have to learn and be aware of when to continue adapting to our situations and when it is time to jump out.

The danger is that most of us either consciously or unconsciously adapt to harmful situations by not leaving our comfort zone. Consequently, we avoid our responsibility and the circumstances or blame third parties and thus place ourselves in the role of the victim.

This behavior of passivity and submission is usually confused with other good behaviors such as empathy, love, and acceptance. However, this should not be the case since we become ‘boiling frogs due to fear, low self-esteem, uncertainty, and resignation. These attitudes undermine our ability to react to our situations, deteriorate us and subtly and gradually take control of our lives. This leads to the concept of the importance of awareness. Do we know when and if we are at risk of becoming boiled frogs? Are we aware of what is happening to us, or our environment? Are we able to pause, take notice of our situations and be aware of our predicament and take care of ourselves accordingly by jumping out of the pot before we are cooked?

The main reason we get into situations where we become boiled frogs is “Denial”. Stubbornly we opt to remain in the same situation, which makes us stuck in deteriorating circumstances. As a result of denial, we fail to act and do nothing about our situation until we find ourselves in the blink of death. To sum up the lesson from the boiling frog syndrome theory, there are times when we need to take the bull by the horns and face the situation head-on and take appropriate action accordingly. By allowing people to exploit us physically, emotionally, financially, or in any other way, they will continue to do so, and if we are not aware of it, we will find ourselves in grave situations with no ability to reverse or change the situation. Thus, we have to decide when to jump.

If you do not want to become a “boiling frog” you should avoid adapting or getting used to the rising temperatures, never settle, and act sooner, when you still have the ability to do so, rather than later. Look yourself in the mirror, you do not look like a frog and you are definitely smarter than a frog. Always, step back and take stock of all the aspects of your life such as your career, your health, your business, your relationships and friendships, and your addictions. Know when to be patient and adapt, and when it is time to jump out of your situation when you still have the ability to do so.