Written by Gene Mason
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Sunday, 27 April 2008

image for Science Corner: An Experiment in Button Pushing

Preliminary Disclaimer: This experiment involves animal cruelty. Lots of it. Please do not conduct it yourself. Just use your imagination. Creator of experiment assumes no responsibility for human or animal deaths, injuries, mental anguish, or property damage sustained as a result of engaging in the activities described herein.


MATERIALS

3 or 4 partitioned rodent cages
1 small metal conditioning cage
Pellet dispenser for conditioning cage
Mouse food and pellets
12 stray cats
12 mice
1 red burlap sack
1 blue burlap sack
2 feline cages with electronic doors
20 feet of electrical wire
2 red electronic buttons
2 blue electronic buttons


PREPARATION

Note: Mice are color blind. However, they will see red as gray and blue as black, allowing for consistent conditioning while using bright, pretty colors that appeal to humans.

1. Condition 3 Mice (R) to expect a food reward when they push a red button and an electric shock when they push a blue button. (R) = red.

2. Condition 3 Mice (D) to expect a food reward when they push a blue button and an electric shock when they push a red button. (D) = dark blue.

3. Don't condition 6 Mice (L). (L) = left alone.

4. Place the two feline cages inside a larger enclosure.

5. Wire the door of one cage to a red button near the floor inside the enclosure and to a red button that you will hold.

6. Wire the door of the other cage to a blue button near the floor inside the enclosure and to a blue button that you will hold.

7. Place 6 cats in the red burlap sack and 6 cats in the blue burlap sack.

8. Swing sacks in circles, dunk in water, poke with a stick, and wave over fire as needed to agitate contents.

9. Allow sacks to sit for 5 minutes.

10. Empty sacks onto ground and choose the most viable surviving cat from each sack.

11. Place the cat chosen from the red sack in the cage that's wired to the red buttons.

12. Place the cat chosen from the blue sack in the cage that's wired to the blue buttons.


ACTIVITIES

1. Introduce one Mouse (R) to the enclosure. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

2. Introduce one Mouse (D) to the enclosure. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

3. Introduce the second Mouse (R) to the enclosure. Before it has time to press its red button, press your blue button to save it from itself. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

4. Introduce the second Mouse (D) to the enclosure. Before it has time to press its blue button, press your red button to save it from itself. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

5. Introduce the third Mouse (R) and one Mouse (L) to the enclosure. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

6. Introduce the third Mouse (D) and the second Mouse (L) to the enclosure. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

7. Introduce two more Mice (L) to the enclosure together. Wait an hour. Results? To save these mice from their own apathy, press your red or blue button, depending on your own preference. If you have no preference, toss a coin and press red if it's heads and blue if it's tails. Results? Return the loose cat to its cage.

8. Introduce the final two Mice (L) to the enclosure together. Wait an hour. Results? Press no buttons of your own and wait another hour. Results?


QUESTIONS

1. Do you prefer red or blue? Explain how the mice were better off when the button color of your preference was pressed.

2. When the mice were introduced in unmatched pairs of one conditioned and one unconditioned mouse, were the consequences of any button pressing limited only to the mouse who actually pressed the button? Which of the unconditioned mice in these pairs fared better, the one whose partner pushed the red button or the one whose partner pushed the blue button?

3. Did your button pressing for the first pair of unconditioned mice help keep them safe and well?

4. Did refraining from button pressing for the second pair of unconditioned mice diminish their quality of life or put them in danger?

5. Was pressing a button ever beneficial for any mice?

6. Was not pressing a button ever beneficial for any mice?

7. Assuming that you knew beforehand what the results of button pressing would be, was your button pressing an act of violence? From a practical point of view, could button pressing by mice also be perceived as an act of violence?

8. In light of the results, can the argument be made that pressing buttons helps preserve the mice's way of life and not pressing buttons threatens their way of life?


SUPPLEMENTAL ACTIVITIES

In order to properly evaluate the influences of diverse cat and mouse value systems on the results of this experiment, repeat Activities 1-4 with the following changes in the animals you will use:

Condition 2 Mice (R) to expect an aggression reward when they press a red button and an electric shock when they press a blue button.

Condition 2 Mice (D) to expect a food reward when they press a blue button and an electric shock when they press a red button.

In lieu of stray cats, place 6 pampered fancy breed cats in the red burlap sack and 6 healthy but unpampered tabby cats in the blue burlap sack during preparation.


QUESTIONS FOR SUPPLEMENTAL ACTIVITIES

1. Do you prefer fancy cats or tabby cats? Explain how the mice fared better when the cat variety you favor was selected.

2. Which do you believe to be the greater threat to a mouse's survival, aggression from other mice or scarcity of food? In light of the results, were the safety and survival needs of the mice better satisfied by pressing a red button or a blue button?

3. Can you think of anything in human behavior that resembles the preparation and activities described in these experiments?

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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