Boiling Frog

boiled frogs

The boiling frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. It is a metaphor for the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually. However, the premise of the story is not literally true; an actual frog submerged and gradually heated will jump out. (Similarly, the metaphor of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand is also not base in fact.)

The moral of the story is that people should make themselves aware of gradual change lest they suffer eventual undesirable consequences. At times it is told in support of a slippery slope argument. It is also used in business to illustrate the idea that change needs to be gradual to be accepted. It was used in 1960 to describe the dangers of sympathy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War; in 1980 about the impending collapse of civilization anticipated by survivalists; and in the 1990s about inaction in response to climate change and staying in abusive relationships. It has also been used by libertarians to warn about slow erosion of civil rights. In philosophy the boiling frog story has been used as a way of explaining the ‘sorites paradox’: if you remove grains one at a time from a heap of sand, at what point does it cease to be a ‘heap.’

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