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Will We Notice Boiling Frog Before We Croak?

by on April 27, 2015 6:15 AM

My middle daughter is my workout partner.

For the past several months, we've been on a steady regimen of meeting with our coach on Sunday mornings for lifting after which we do some quick cardio on the treadmill.

The stamina, stride and strength of a 54 year old woman versus her 20-something daughter are, not surprisingly, a little different.

I noticed last week that when she steps on the treadmill, she immediately sets her pace on the machine and off she goes.

From the minute she starts, she runs at that pace and then jumps off when she hits the desired mile target.

Mom on the other hand, is a firm believer in the "boiling frog" approach to running on the treadmill. I start at a lower speed and then gradually bump up the pace until I'm eventually running almost as fast as my kid on the treadmill next to me. Almost.

The boiling frog is used to describe how people respond to change in their lives. In the analogy of the boiling frog, it is suggested that if one puts a frog in boiling water, said frog will immediately jump out in response to the heat. Supposedly a frog that is placed in cold water won't figure out that the heat is being turned up until it's too late and eventually ends up as an appetizer served on a plate with drawn butter.

Not true according to science. Researchers who have tested this theory find that, in reality, a frog placed in water will become agitated as the heat of the water goes up and will make every attempt to get out of the kettle as the water reaches boiling.

Humans, on the other hand, are not as smart.

Consider the current state of road construction in and around State College. We are given the warning that Atherton Street is going to be under some kind of construction for the next six years. We aren't told that at the same time, almost every other major roadway in and out of our area will also be under some kind of construction.

Commuters who attempt to avoid one clog inevitably end up sitting in another. Pretty soon, we get used to sitting in traffic, waiting for the flag person to give us the go-ahead, with the beep-beep-beep of heavy equipment backing up outside our car windows and it becomes a way of daily life.

The temperature increase is barely noticeable.

Another example is our acceptance of the intrusion of cell phones in our lives. When the transportable phone first came on the scene, it was such a novelty that we applied general etiquette rules to its use. There was red-faced embarrassment if our phone rang during a meeting or a dinner or church.

We put our phones in our purses or pockets when in public and discreetly checked our messages. We stepped away or outside the gathering to have private conversations on our phones.

Not so much today. A guy sat down next to me in the airport last week, and I had the privilege of listening to the minutiae of his trip to Orlando, the details of what he ate and what he did, the clichés of his business success (he knocked it out of the park) and a loud "I love you" to the person on the other end of the call. At dinner at a local brew pub on Friday night, it seemed almost everyone - including me and my husband - had our phones out and were checking messages or texting.

Let's hope we jump out of the kettle before we progress to texting the person sitting across the table from us.

The story goes that we are less apt to notice and respond to change when it is gradual. In relationships. In the work place. In the environment around us. Like the frog in the story, we are less inclined to react when the stress or the crisis comes on gradually.

The metaphor of the boiling frog has become almost cliché when we think about politics and government. Taxes. Laws and regulation. The role of government in our lives. Regardless of the political party that controls the temperature on the stove, elected officials seem to count on the American people to ignore the sometimes subtle and gradual influence of the political agenda.

Similarly, our acceptance of political scandal has evolved to the point that we barely even notice the steam. In the past, the mere mention of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing or campaign funds from a questionable source would have been the ruination of a political career. Our tolerance for broken campaign promises, corruption and outright lying has increased with the 24/7 heat of network news and the internet.

From leg room on airplanes to our tolerance for the crimes committed in the name of religious extremism, a slight turning of the knob over time dulls our responses and increases our acceptance of a new normal than does the shock of a drastic change or crisis.

I picture the frog, happily swimming in the pot, until he or she realizes it's too late to change the outcome.

The lesson in the boiling frog analogy is that sometimes easing into change is positive. It is an effective strategy for a middle aged Mom on the treadmill. In other situations, the gradual turning up of the heat may mean it's over before we understand that what is happening.


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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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