Friday, October 20, 2006

Make food, not war!

My undergraduate degree is in psychology, and I was fortunate to study at a university with renowned programs in cognitive, behavioral, social, educational, community, and organizational psych. The medical school also had a plethora of Freudian analysts who were happy to teach the occasional undergrad seminar in dream analysis. Since few of the professors associated with each other across program boundaries, it was like studying in a half dozen different departments.

Although I ended my academic career specializing in community anad educational psychology, my real affection was for behavioral -- "rat lab." I conducted research on choice, looking at both cognitive and motivational factors surrounding rats' decisionmaking. In one experiment, my rats learned a Y-shaped maze with two branches. The extremely long branch led to a substantive food reward; the short branch, to a skimpy snack. The hungry rats quickly figured this out. I began lengthening the long branch to figure out how far they'd trek for the big meal. There was also an (unauthorized) experiment in which I trained a rat to drink whiskey, then took it in my pocket to a sleazy bar filled with depressed grad students. I sat at the bar, ordered two shots, and plopped my rat companion in front of one of the glasses. We drank. The grad students stared blearily, probably afraid to admit what they though they were seeing. It may have been one of the better dates I went on during college.

I continue to conduct behavioral experiments at home, most of them involving our large herd of cats. This morning, I made a discovery that surprised me. Sheba, our deaf white cat, has a history of savagely attacking the next door neighbor's gray cat. In the past two years, they've called a truce, as along as the gray cat stays in her own yard. If she comes into our basement, which she does, Sheba has carte blanche (or is the cat blanche?) to attack. Which she does.

The neighbors left on a trip last night, and, sure enough, this morning their gray cat came into our basement and up the stairs to our kitchen. Sheba was in the kitchen, waiting for her breakfast, and her eyes went wide, then dark and beady, when she saw the interloper. I got in between them long enough to give the gray cat a head start back down to the basement, and then I lugged Sheba across the kitchen. Undaunted, Sheba kept heading back to the basement -- until I got her favorite pepper turkey cold cuts out of the fridge, and dangled a slice in front of her nose. She followed me docilely to her bowl and chowed down, the gray cat completely forgotten. Since Sheba, unlike my rats, is not kept in a state of perpetual hunger, I thought this was pretty impressive evidence of food trumping territorialism, even in a low-motivation state. Make food, not war!


  1. I try to conduct behavioral experiments at home, with my husband, to bring about changes in the position of toilet seat and the arrangment of dishes in the dishwasher. I may have to try your turkey cold-cut trick. :)

  2. I think you'd find the whiskey trick even more effective for husband training. May I suggest a nice single malt?