The Contingent-Trained Rat

Lessons to be learned from the literal rat race.

By Dawn Wiese

Many years ago, someone sent me a card that read, “Perseverance: The Secret of All Triumphs.” The card came at a time when the battles I was facing were many, however, my focus was sharp. I’ve never forgotten that card nor the feeling I had when reading it.  My own path at the time was difficult but determined.  Looking up from that path to self-reflect was not something I even considered.  Yet, it was the card that encouraged me to wake up from the race and think about what it means to persevere and what is happening when perseverance and resiliency are not a part of how one approaches the hard road.

Much of my own career has focused on decision making:  decision making to form strategy, decision making to shape models of governance, and decision making by college-aged students.   I consider my own response when faced with a difficult time or difficult decision or crossroads: to keep moving forward.  But, what of those who struggle when facing complex decisions or adversity?  We hear about college students and high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.  Colleges and universities across the country report an explosion of mental health concerns.  A new book argues that college life may be more stressful than ever. Dr. Anthony Rostain, co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives, notes that today’s college students are experiencing an “inordinate amount of anxiety” — much of it centered on “surviving college and doing well.”

In considering decision making and mental health issues, I began to wonder: Is there a link between resiliency, decision making, and mental health issues?  My quest led me to Well Grounded: The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions by Dr. Kelly Lambert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Richmond. Although much of Lambert’s research employs the use of laboratory rats, the lessons for humankind have been many.  Shares Lambert, “The importance of behavior in mental health has become increasingly clear as my students and I have developed rodent models requiring certain behavioral strategies to cope with stress, the precursor for many varieties of mental illness.”  

Consider this study about an effort-based reward model as described by Lambert:

In one group, rats are required to produce physical effort to earn their food treats.  More specifically, the group of rats known as “contingent-trained rats,” spend six minutes a day engaged in strategic actions, in this case, going out in laboratory “fields” to dig up Froot Loops cereal in order to build connections between their actions (digging) and outcomes (eating yummy Froot Loops). The results indicate that, compared to their noncontingent rat counterparts who don’t have to work for their rewards, working rats have enhanced emotional resilience, an ability to bounce back in challenging times that may serve as a buffer  against the onset of mental illnesses such as depression. This rodent model serves as a reminder of the importance of building strong associations between our actions and subsequent outcomes. 

In other words, when one learns to tackle the tough path, lessons of resiliency, perseverance and determination are acquired.  If obstacles are simply moved from our path when facing tough times, we may not acquire those skills and may be more susceptible to depression and anxiety.  

It is easy to see culprits of this in “helicopter parents,” who shield their students from hardship.  But, are colleges and universities also guilty when, for example, students are “protected” from hearing speakers who may share an unpopular opinion? Or, when students are offered “safe spaces,” as if an entire campus is not safe?  As shared in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, “should college students interpret emotional pain as a sign that they are in danger?” Lambert shares a similar sentiment, “individuals who are always testing the water and exploring different outcomes are building impressive contingency libraries, or contingency capital, to consult in future scenarios characterized by uncertainty.”

As the mother of a college-age student, I sometimes find I must hold myself back when I think I see a mistake in the making.  Knowing that, in not rescuing my daughter I am helping her build contingency capital certainly eases some of that concern!

Perhaps it all goes back to that simpler time of life when my daughter and I would watch Disney movies together because, even old Walt himself seems to share the same sentiment: “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me….You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” 

Learn more about Plaid’s approach to understanding mental health issues and college students today by exploring Plaid’s Tightrope program.

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