The author, Barry Goldman, describes a situation that most of us are familiar with--how dogs like golden retrievers can seem to play fetch forever. However, we have also noticed situations when they stand rather confused and start barking at the ball or the stick; it is:
because of two fixed, internal rules he has. The first rule is that he must stay on land until he is as close as possible to the ball and then swim the rest of the way. The second rule is that he must enter the water gradually. He won't jump in from the side. This makes playing in the Pacific Ocean easy, but the pool presents a problem. If the ball is closer to one of the edges of the pool than it is to the steps, all he can do is run to the closest edge, look at the ball with trembling excitement and bark.Do we humans do anything like this? Or, are we way smarter than the retriever that barks from the edge of the pool?
To get to this, Goldman explains the psychology:
Cognitive scientists call this kind of difficulty "sphexishness" after the behavior of the female sphex wasp. She will sting and paralyze a cricket, stash it in a hole in a tree and lay her eggs on it. When the eggs hatch, the baby wasps have fresh cricket to eat. But the mama sphex also has an internal rule. When she brings a cricket to the opening of the hole, she always goes inside for a look around before she drags it in. If an experimenter moves the cricket a few inches away while the sphex is in the hole, she will repeat the process, bringing the cricket back to the opening and going inside for a look. If the experimenter moves the cricket again, the wasp will repeat the behavior. Her internal rule calls for her to look in the hole before she drags the cricket inside, and that is what she will do. If the experimenter moves the cricket 40 times, the sphex will repeat the behavior 40 times. We don't know how many more times she would do it because the experimenters always give up.By now, you are thinking that we humans are way smarter than this, right? Are you sure? Take it away, Goldman. Give us a couple of human analogies:
We continue to think that Americans, no matter how crazy, should be able to buy guns, no matter how lethal. ...Now, speaking of wars, from what Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times, it appears that we might/would be able to get out of our sphexishness--if we and our President listened to the late Richard Holbrooke.
We continue to believe that business can regulate itself....
We persist in throwing endless blood and treasure into the endless, pointless war on drugs. ...
We continue to believe in the fantasies of smart bombs, surgical strikes and limited wars. ...
Holbrooke opposed the military “surge” in Afghanistan and would see the demise of Bin Laden as an opportunity to go into diplomatic overdrive....So, Mr. President, more sphexishness?
Vali Nasr, a member of Holbrooke’s team at the State Department, puts it this way: “He understood from his experience that every conflict has to end at the negotiating table.”
Nasr says that Holbrooke’s aim for Afghanistan was “not cut-and-run, but a viable, lasting solution” to end the civil war there. If Holbrooke were still alive, Nasr says, he would be shuttling frantically between Islamabad and Kabul, trying to take advantage of Bin Laden’s killing to lay the groundwork for a peace process.