Rat Beats Human

Once upon a time, there was an experiment.

In this experiment rats could press either Bar X or Bar Y. If the rat pressed the correct bar, it would receive a pellet of food; if it pressed the incorrect bar, nothing. (Why do experimental rats get “pellets” of food? Why not morsels, nibbles, tidbits, noshes, or treats? Poor rats.) The bars were calibrated in a random sequence such that 60% of the time Bar X would dispense the delight and 40% of the time Bar Y would serve the snack.

A similar experiment, also with a 60/40 random sequence, was run with humans. It is unknown whether the humans received pellets of food or some other form of reinforcement.

The rats quickly figured out that the best strategy was to press Bar X every time. Mathematical­ly, that’s the best possible strategy. They got a 60% success rate, the best possible outcome.

The humans tried to outsmart the system, to find patterns in the random sequence, to predict the next move. They switched cleverly between Bar X and Bar Y, and they succeeded less than 60% of the time. Rat beats human.

No one — well, no human — says a rat is smarter than a human; yet, competitively, rat beats human. Why? How?

I believe I am not a rat so it is difficult for me to understand their decision-making process. I am also not all other humans. So, based on conjecture:




Pride and ego

None discernible

Pride and ego never rest


Accepts simple solution

Tries to figure it out even if there’s nothing to figure

Driven by evidence

Dispassionately gathers and analyzes intelligence

Seeks patterns, rejects the very idea of randomness

Interpretation of luck

I was lucky

I was smart

Now, there’s a quirk here. We humans are willing to compare ourselves to other humans. We are not willing to compare ourselves to rats. (Or even to computers, but that’s another story.) I compare my pellet-record to yours and you compare yours to mine. You got 57.3% and I got 57.1%; I want to know what you did that I didn’t do. (Note that I may think you got lucky, but you won’t.) I’ll do my best to adopt your best practices. You’ll go into consulting and sell them to me — a proprietary framework with the buy-me-now title “pellet-acquisition optimization in today’s unpredictable global economy” — along with an annual subscription to The Journal of Pellet Optimization and Prediction.

Humans compete not only over pellets but also over planets. A long time ago astronomers strove mightily to devise an accurate model of the geocentric heavens; that is, to write equa­tions that would correctly predict the movement of the planets in a cosmos with the earth at its center. Their models grew more and more complex, and even so failed to fit the data. Then along came a smart human named Nicolaus Copernicus who published a heliocentric model with planets, including the earth, circling the sun. Copernicus was no rat but he possessed the envia­ble rat-skill of preferring data over ego. (Do we have a similar situation today with John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group and creator of its index funds, versus stock-pickers? I’m just asking.)

Unless it’s a really, really special individual, a rat knows nothing about random-number genera­tors, probabilities, and expected values. The rat is doing something different. It learns from its experience. It is satisfied with its simple solution. And it will learn something new if its solution stops working.

Rats evidently have a competitive advantage over humans in making predictions under certain conditions. Anyone who steps back and says “wait a minute, what if…” may be channeling his or her “inner rat.” Copernicus did. Alexander did, as he sliced the Gordian knot. I’ll wager that people who come up with the innovative, disruptive strategies we prize so much — “it’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of it?” — are doing it too.

The rat isn’t doing anything a human can’t. The rat is doing something a human won’t. To com­pete effectively against humans, sometimes it pays to think like a rat.

“Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report.
Find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”
 ~Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup


About the author  ⁄ Mark Chussil

MARK CHUSSIL is founder & CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc., and, with Benjamin Gilad, a cofounder and partner of Sync Strategy. He has conducted business war games, built custom strategy simulators, and taught workshops on strategic thinking for dozens of Fortune 500 companies on six continents, resulting in billions of dollars made or saved.

A pioneer in quantitative business war games and a highly rated speaker, he has 35 years of experience in competitive strategy. One of his simulation technologies has won a patent; a patent is pending on another. He has written three books, chapters for five others, and numerous articles.

He has been quoted in Fast Company, Harvard Management Update, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He received the Fellows Award from the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals society in 2013. He earned his MBA at Harvard University and his BA at Yale University.


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