The Smart Rat

By Noah Graff

I recently heard a story on an NPR podcast called “Invisibilia,” which discussed the effects expectations can have on human abilities.

The story begins by describing a scientific test conducted on rats.

Researchers took several rats and put them in cages, arbitrarily labeling half the cages with “smart rat,” and the other half with “dumb rat.” Lab technicians who did not know that the rat cages were labeled arbitrarily, took the rats out and tested their abilities to finish a maze.

My inference, as I assume most people’s would be, is that the rats from cages labeled “smart” would do no better on average than the rats from cages labeled “dumb.” After all, the rats’ cages were labeled arbitrarily. But rat after rat, the ones labeled “smart” finished considerably better than those labeled “dumb.” So how did this happen?

Scientists theorized that the lab technicians, without thinking about it, treated the “smart” rats differently from the “dumb” rats, which led to the differing results. The technicians handled the supposedly smart rats with more care than those that were supposedly dumb, which led to their superior performance in the maze. Thus, the higher the expectations the technicians had for the rats, the better the rats would perform.

The NPR story centers around Daniel Kish, a blind man who from the time he was young was allowed by his mom to do everything seeing children could do. He was allowed to play outside on his own. He’d climb trees, cross streets, fight with other kids and even taught himself to ride a bike as a very young child. On his own, Kish trained himself to use a tongue clicking method called human echolocation which enables him to know where he is in space, much the same way bats navigate. By sensing echoes from nearby objects, people trained in echolocation can orient themselves by interpreting the sound waves reflected.

In elementary school, Kish met another blind kid who had previously gone to a school for the blind. This kid had been used to people constantly helping him function. People always had led him where to go and brought him whatever he needed, but when he was left on his own he became helpless. Schools for the blind are no longer in vogue today, as people have realized that not letting blind people struggle to function on their own is debilitating. Today Kish devotes his life to working with blind kids to teach them to be independent. He teaches kids do the type of activities on their own that he had taught himself when he was young, such as climbing trees, hiking, crossing the street and even riding a bike.

Kish says that the main obstacle he runs into in his quest to make kids independent is love. Parents understandably have considerable trouble allowing their disabled kids to become frustrated or perhaps even harmed by letting them struggle on their own.

I grew up with a learning disability which made me a slow reader and slow writer. I had to receive extra time on exams and go to special tutors, but my parents always expected me to get good grades and produce great work. They never said, “Maybe he’s just not good at school, so we shouldn’t put pressure on him to do better.” Instead, my parents gave me a ton of help, but they always treated me like a “smart rat,” making me believe that I was gifted and would do well, no matter how impossible the work seemed. I also think that by seeing their examples of academic achievement, along with those of my older siblings, I simply accepted that excelling in school was what I was supposed to do. If they excelled, why shouldn’t I?

Question: Did your parents’ expectations help you or hurt you?

Daniel Kish rides bicycle blind using echolocation

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7 thoughts on “The Smart Rat

  1. Karl

    A lot of our population are labeled “dumb” because of the street address they were born to.
    No mention of Ben Underwood and his achievements during his short life, he must to have had the wrong address.

  2. Jeff

    My mother always encouraged me.
    My Fathers only pleasure in life was seeing me fail, I think it made him feel better about himself.
    I thought I was a Dumb Rat until I started working. My bosses told me what a great job I was doing and encouraged me to better myself.
    I went to school at night for years. I was the opposite with my son. I always encouraged him. Even when he failed at something. He was a good man.

  3. Dan

    To keep on topic, my parents had very high expectation of me, although I had no developmental issues, the encouraged me and I did well. Having a sister with developmental issues, they tended to cater to her and have lower expectations which she embraced as a child, but grew to resent as she became an adult and had children of her own. She has overcome her struggles to become a very successful single mom. It may not be as important how we start, just what we do with life challenges and have the resolve to carry on as a successful productive live, despite your address..

  4. Bryan

    NPR is one of the things the government does right. Not being bombarded by commercials nor influenced by advertisers is a good thing. Those who think it’s a waste don’t listen to it.


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