Boiled Frogs and Thought Experiments

Aristotle understood the value of thought experiments. They can be done quickly without get your hands dirty. Measurements are always precise and consistent. Results are perfectly repeatable. So, why bother with a real experiment when you can do a thought experiment?

Silly Aristotle. We are much smarter than that now. Perhaps. Management thinkers constantly quote the example of the boiled frog. Put a frog in boiling water and it will jump out. Slowly raise the temperature of the water and it will fail to notice the gradual change and boil to death. Since most of us lack both the frog and the insensitivity needed to do this experiment, like Aristotle, we accept the results of the mental experiment.

What would a real experiment reveal? The frog dies if placed in boiling water. The frog jumps out when the water is heated slowly. What happens if the frog is placed in freezing water? It will die. What happens if the temperature of the water drops slowly, such as from summer to winter? The frog will activate genes that produce metabolic enzymes that function at low temperatures.

As any dinosaur could tell you, slow change gives us time to react, rapid change can lead to extinction.


Fast Company: “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant.” November 1995 (p. 20) The “boiled frog” story.