The mice warned us

The early pioneers in psychology, the standard list around the western world is Pavlov, Skinner, Jung, Maslow, Erickson, Rogers, Freud, and Piaget, focused on an individual’s response to reality. These folks helped us understand the physiology of the human brain and mind; they provided insight into the human response to love, fear, success, failure and a myriad other emotional behaviors. It wasn’t until the Second World War and after that psychology partnered with sociology and history to investigate group behavior. Similarly, management theory and economics incorporated psychology and sociology to uncover new approaches to management; one thinks of Deming, Drucker, Chandler and Aldrich among others.

An interesting observation is that the study of group behavior began about a decade before differences in individual behavior versus group behavior began to be documented in contemporary terms. Two world famous experiments were conducted that have become common knowledge. The first was one of a series of studies of mice by John B. Calhoun in 1972; the second was a college experiment performed at Stanford University in 1971 covered in the next post.


The mouse study was performed to answer the question, ‘what happens when overcrowding occurs?’ (The human brain is optimized for a social group of about 150-200 people). Calhoun was careful to eliminate the lack of resources as an influence and fed his mice with an endless supply of food, water and nutrition. Calhoun provided a mouse utopia with apartments and different levels called Universe 25; the initial number of mice was 8. The landings of the pilgrims and the first migration to the Middle East from the Rift Valley in Africa come to mind.

Brackets [] in the quoted material below are added by mariner.

At the peak population [2,200 by day 560], most mice spent every living second in the company of hundreds of other mice. They gathered in the main squares, waiting to be fed and occasionally attacking each other. [Nations live this way now on every continent except Australia and Antarctica] Few females carried pregnancies to term, and the ones that did seemed to simply forget about their babies. They’d move half their litter away from danger and forget the rest. [Forced migration] Sometimes they’d drop and abandon a baby while they were carrying it. [Closely approximates behavior in estranged communities and certain starving populations in Africa; mice had no chemical alternatives or voluntary abortions]

The few secluded spaces [owned territories] housed a population Calhoun called, “the beautiful ones.” [wealthy class] Generally guarded by one male, the females—and few males—inside the space didn’t breed or fight or do anything but eat and groom and sleep. When the population started declining the beautiful ones were spared from violence and death, but had completely lost touch with social behaviors, including having sex or caring for their young.” [Comparatively, humans in their teens and twenties today have significantly less sex than their elders at the same age] [Add to that the lessening need to socialize with other humans directly because of the smartphone, TV and other electronics]

A notable side effect as the population approached its maximum was that mice that still had a bit of territory chased other male mice into specific corners at the opposite end of the cage. Mariner wonders whether suppressed groups in Africa and other nonproductive locations are simply ignored because there is no forced limit of territory at this time. Oh to live in Silicon Valley….

Now, in 2015, interpretations of Calhoun’s work have changed. Esther Inglis-Arkell (UCSF) explains that the habitats he created weren’t really overcrowded, but that aggressive mice enforced territorial prerogative to keep the beautiful ones isolated. She writes, “Instead of a population problem, one could argue that Universe 25 had a fair distribution problem.

“In 1972, with the baby boomers coming of age in an ever-more-crowded world and reports of riots in the cities, Universe 25 looked like a Malthusian nightmare. It [collapse of society] even acquired its own catchy name, “The Behavioral Sink.” If starvation didn’t kill everyone, people would destroy themselves. The best option was to flee to the country or the suburbs, where people had space and life was peaceful and natural.

“The fact remains that it [Universe 25] had a problem, and one that eventually led to its destruction. If this behavior is shared by both mice and humans, can we escape Universe 25’s fate?” [Inglis-Arkell]

Mariner leaves the door open for readers to have further speculation about group behavior in unbalanced societies.

Next post, the effect of power.

Ancient Mariner