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Eric Adams

What’s That Rat-Drowning Experiment Mayor Adams Talked About? We Tried To Find Out

Adams likes to talk about rats, and Wednesday, he told DOT workers about a sadistic experiment that sort of likened them to the rodents,

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Mayor Adams was inspired to tell DOT employees about a sadistic rat experiment of the 1950s by Curt Richter (inset).

So, let's get this straight: why was the mayor comparing city workers to rats from a sadistic, long-discredited experiment?

In his bizarre pep talk to Department of Transportation workers on Wednesday, when Mayor Adams likened them to rats who survived a drowning experiment, Hizzoner was citing a decades-old study that routinely surfaces online in videos and pop psychology publications as proof of the "power of hope," but which scientists have called into question.

Adams referenced the idea as a way of inspiring DOT workers, who are often under fire from both street safety advocates and anti-DOT pols. Hope, he argued, will help them do their very difficult jobs. You know, just like the rats who survived in the drowning experiment.

"I read this interesting paper the other day that was really mind-boggling. These scientists place a group of rats — you know I hate rats — inside a pool, and the rats had to tread water, and after 15 minutes, the rats started to drown," Adams told the workers. "Before they drowned, he pulled them out, dried them off, and he did the experiment again. He placed them in water again and they treaded. Instead of 15 minutes, they lasted for 48 hours, because in their minds, their brains started to believe that they were going to be rescued.

"Hope is everything,” he concluded.

Wait, wut?

It's not clear where Hizzoner heard about the experiment, but he was vaguely referring to a 1957 study published by the psychobiologist Curt Richter, then a professor of psychobiology at Johns Hopkins. (Richter died in 1988 and is credited with the idea of the biological clock, according to an obituary in the New York Times.)

Mayor Adams perhaps encountered the study from an Oct. 19 post on Instagram by "dom.the.hypnotist," who advertises “hypnotizing business owners for MORE success.” His video sounds very similar to the way Adams talked about the study:

The account’s owner, Dominique Bertoncini, told Streetsblog in a direct message that he hadn't seen the mayor’s talk, but found it "interesting." He declined to share more specific thoughts.

Another video was posted about 10 months ago.

Richter's original study, titled, “On the phenomenon of sudden death in animals and man” and published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, involved dropping wild and domesticated Norway rats into tanks of water to measure their survival rates. Most of the domesticated rats could last for around 60 hours, while their wild cousins would all die within 15 minutes.

Richter presumed that because they felt hopeless they would just “give up.”

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight — it is rather one of hopelessness,” Richter wrote.

Curt Richter, in happier times.

“​​This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to ‘give up,’” he continued. 

“After elimination of the hopelessness the rats do not die."

Richter found that if he and his fellow researchers only immersed the wild rats for a few minutes at a time, they “quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless,” and could last as long as their domestic counterparts. 

In the late 1970s, researchers cast doubt on Richter’s interpretations of rat "hope," saying that he might have been exhibiting “anthropomorphism,” or attributing human behavior to animals. In a 2005 biography, writers cited later studies saying that the reasons for the differing reactions between wild and domestic rats “remain unexplained.”

Adams's reference to the experiment was part of a larger theme of bolstering his approach to running the city and, by extension, its agencies. At one point, he compared running the city to sending his son, Jordan Coleman, off to college, while constantly checking on university leaders to make sure they were giving him a good education.

“If I didn’t give that school leader the right to do what he wanted with Jordan, I’m not going to give any agency in the city the right to do what they want with my baby called New York City,” Adams said.

“I’m not interfering, I’m monitoring to make sure the promise I made to New Yorkers I’m going to live out,” he continued. “It’s a different style, it’s a different approach, and trust me, it can be aggravating. But I make determinations of no, we’re not going to do this project [or] we’re going to do this project because I see the total picture of this entire city."

The City Hall did not respond to a request for comment, but on Wednesday, Adams spokesman Charles Lutvak said, "The mayor did not compare anyone to rats."

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