What Could a Lab Rat Teach you About Leadership?

In the 1960’s a couple of scientists (Rosenthal and Frode) were busy trying to breed clever rodents.  To see if they had succeeded they ran some experiments with two strains of rats and a series of mazes:

  • The first strain was “maze bright”, with parents and grand parents who were good at navigating mazes
  • The second group was bred to be “maze dull”, their ancestors were the couch potatoes of the rat world

The tests ran for 5 days

A group of students put the rats through their paces.  The rats had to navigate successive mazes to find a food cache.  The runs were timed, the stats were assessed and the whole experiment was shown to be a resounding success.

The “maze bright” rats were faster at negotiating the mazes, there was no statistical doubt.  The clever rat was born.

But there was an interesting twist

Not only were they better at running through mazes, their handlers also described the “maze bright” rats as more pleasant and likeable.  They were far easier to handle than the “maze dull” rats and much more fun to pet and play with.

Was there a genetic linkage?

If a rat is bred to be smart is it also more likeable?  Something to do with the position of the genes on the chromosomes perhaps?  Linked inheritance is a well-known phenomenon.

No, it was all a big con

There was no breeding programme, the rats were all standard lab rats allocated to the “maze bright” and “maze dull” groups entirely randomly.  The only difference between them was what their student handlers were told.  The difference in the performance had nothing to do with the rats and everything to do with their handlers.

This is the “experimenter effect”, a nice example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Proof that if you think a rat is clever it will act clever.

But here is the real rub

If rats act up to the stereotypes they are given, what does stereotyping do to our staff?

How many couch potatoes do you manage?

If you enjoyed this post click here for updates delivered straight to your inbox

Self fulfilling prophecy

Watch another opinion

Image by pockafwye


  1. James,
    Great story. Thank you for sharing that as I hadn’t heard it before.

    I’m a great believer in starting with a belief that all people are bright and interesting. Funny thing is that as well as having a positive effect on them it also has a positive effect on me and how I see the world. That’s all probably linked to an in-built sense of optimism.

    However, optimism can be taught. Maybe that’s what we should be teaching is leadership courses.


  2. Alan O'Connor says:

    An interesting insight into the management and genuine leadership qualities needed to be a true inspiration. This, of course, will apply to our children as well as employees. Even, partners, reverting to the adage, you get back what you put in.

  3. Cornelio Abellanas says:

    Excellent example on the influence of leadership!
    Improvement is also about behaviors.
    The question is: how do we improve behaviors?
    One thing is clear: a good process generates positive behaviors while a poor process causes frustration and negative behaviors: blaming others, distorting results, hiding facts, etc.

    • James Lawther says:

      Very true Cornelio, but which came first? The process or the behaviour? It is a bit chicken and egg I think.

  4. Hello James,

    I thank you for sharing this study. Why? Whilst being an avid student of this kind of stuff, I have not come across these rat studies.

    It occurs to me that one of the most fundamental, most critical, stands we take is that towards our fellow human beings. Are they good or bad? Smart or stupid? Hardworking or lazy? Selfish or cooperative? And as this study makes clear our (as in our culture) stand directly influences-shapes what shows up for us in the world of social relations.

    In the world of business I find myself taken back to the question of Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X, the default theory as lived in the organisational worlds, is that people are intrinsically lazy, stupid, selfish and thus have to be moved through carrots and sticks. Theory Z, people are intrinsically good, helpful, creative, smart, hardworking.

    I subscribe to neither theory X nor theory Y. I find myself in tune with Theory Z which is along the lines of how management acts in relation to the employees determine how employees show up. Long before these theories grew in the USA, a German philosopher said that “Existence precedes essence”. By which he meant that man’s essence is shaped by man’s view of what it means to be a man. And thus is shaped by cultural practices. So in Homeric Greece you had warriors and cowards. With Christianity man became either a saint or a sinner. And before the blooming of the Enlightenment man fitted into the system given by God and knew his place in the community…..

    At a deeply personal level, I have deep affinity to one person who listens to me as greatness. And this is so no matter how I am behaving at a particular point in time. Within her presence I always find myself living up to her estimation-stance of me. We do not just participate in the drama of life, we co-create life.

    As a leader-manager-parent, it occurs to me that the useful question to ask is this one: who/how am i being such that the way that I am showing up and travelling in life is generating the kind of results that are occurring? Always start with oneself and ask how it is that I am shaping-causing that which shows up.

    All the best

    • Graham Swanborough says:

      But the rats involved (“the rats were all standard lab rats”) would lack the wide genetic diversity of humans.

      So, sadly, the analogy breaks down. Nice story though.

      • James Lawther says:

        Graham, thanks for your comment, but if the rats lacked genetic diversity doesn’t that make the analogy all the stronger?


        • Graham Swanborough says:

          No. It means it works for rats. It gives no indication of whether it will work with humans who have huge genetic and this behavioural variation, double that of dogs for example (heterozygosity of dogs 0.4, and of humans 0.7. I suggest your ‘standard lab rats’ were probably <0.1).

          • James Lawther says:

            Sorry Graham, I misunderstood.

            If the question is does the same hold true for humans then I believe it does. If you have a free hour this is a fascinating programme that proves the point.


            Thanks very much for your comment


          • Graham Swanborough says:

            I am aware of the experiment (it was 1985) and I can make a few observations. The heterozygosity of the class appears to be pretty close (all I could see were caucasoid children) so it would have a result similar to that for rats. But if you dramatically increased heterozygosity by adding, say, randomly selected mongoloid, australoid, and negroid children to the class, would the results have been the same? If you did it to each subgroup as a class by itself, the results might still hold, but if you did it to a completely mixed group I doubt it would have the same result because there are huge differences in characteristics and behaviour between the groups. Sadly, unless you do the experiment, you will never know.

  5. Excellent article! Enjoyed reading!


  1. […] If you think a rat is clever, then it will become clever […]