Alan Elms, rats

Contributed by Alan Elms, friend, writer, psychologist:

Okay, here goes Beast, Bug, and Bird Blog post #2. I am a research psychologist by training, a psychobiograper by practice. When I first entered college, I declared psychology as my major because I wanted to be a novelist, and I figured I would learn more about the human psyche from studying psychology than from becoming an English Lit major. But the Penn State psychology department was strongly oriented toward laboratory experiments, with a behaviorist theoretical emphasis and especially a Skinnerian one. I had never heard of B. F. Skinner, but I soon learned a lot about him. I was given to understand that real psychologists worked mostly with pigeons and white rats, not with people. By my sophomore year I described my major as “experimental psychology” and sought experience as a research assistant. A grad student who needed data for his dissertation project gave me two white rats and loaned me a Skinner box, then explained what a Sidman avoidance schedule was. My job was to run each rat in the Skinner box for an hour a day, rewarding the rat for pressing a bar according to some complex pattern of electric shocks and food rewards. I could have simply left the rats in the Skinner box, one at a time, to press the bar while a mechanism dropped an occasional Purina Rat Chow pellet into the food tray as I did my homework for another course. Instead I actually sat and watched the rats as they rambled about the box. I noticed after a while that they showed distinct individual differences in their behavior. One rat learned to approach the bar and press it in the correct pattern, as rats usually did in that situation. The other rat, whom I came to think of as the smarter rat, found that he could sit on top of the bar, so that he was never in danger of being shocked but could just give a little bounce or two occasionally when he wanted more rat chow to drop into his dish.
The grad student didn’t seem much interested in my discovery. The two rats, after all, learned to press the bar at about the same response rate. When the experiment was over, I rewarded the smart rat by taking him back to my dormitory, where he got fed much tastier items than Purina Rat Chow. I named him Irving, for no good reason. (I never told my later mentor at Yale Graduate School, Irving Janis, about this anticipatory naming.) I quickly trained Irving to hang upside down from the ceiling of his wire cage while I fed him a whole raw carrot through the wire. By the time I lost interest in demonstrating Irving’s intelligence, several weeks later, another student in the dorm was happy to adopt him and to leave him at home after Easter vacation. Irving was my last rat — I went on to study howler monkeys, then in grad school finally got back to my original interest: people. I also wrote a couple of novels along the way; neither was ever published.