Frog in the Kettle: Situation Clarified

The Story

 “The boiling frog is an apologue describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly.” [Wikipedia, including selected quotations below.]

I’ve heard the fable applied to the infiltration of negative aspects of culture into Christianity, as per George Barna’s 1990 book “The Frog in the Kettle.” Recently I’ve seen it applied to mental health in a VA commercial. Whether to make a point or not, it appears the frog-kettle scenario has been around quite some time. I thought I’d investigate:


Although Wikipedia’s entry is under “Boiling Frog,” “The Frog in the Kettle” is the common presentation in recent times, perhaps because of Barna. “Boiling Frog Syndrome” works as well.

If we must refer to the vessel, let’s get it right: It should be “Frog in the Pot” or “Frog in the Saucepan.” If you pop the lid off a kettle—more often described as having a small opening, lid, and tapered profile—and shove a frog in that…well, that’s not exactly a fair situation for the frog, now is it? Especially if you replace the lid.

Logistical Considerations

In the fable, the frog cast into boiling water is expected to jump out because it hasn’t been slowly adjusted (i.e. duped). Yet we might ascertain that the violent shock of suddenly encountering boiling water might cause a frog to pass out, thus boiling to its death even though it was acutely aware of the temperature for a brief moment. So, ironically, if this happened, and another frog placed previously in the room temperature kettle—um, saucepan—were to jump out simply because it was, say, bored, the whole scenario might send the opposite message.

Regardless, the frog needs to be able to get leverage for a jump. The water mustn’t be too deep. It probably needs to be called the “Frog Barely Submerged in Water in the Saucepan” metaphor.

Additionally, we need to know that rising temperatures are the singular factor motivating the frog to escape the saucepan. But what about boredom (as mentioned earlier), claustrophobia, or even loneliness? So better yet, we might call the situation “Frogs Barely Submerged in Pond Water with Vegetation in the Unusually Wide Saucepan.”

Historical Research

Scientists, physiologists, and psychologists had a splendid time with this in the 1800s.

Interestingly, one German physiologist was searching for the location of the soul and ran a version of this in which the frog’s brain was removed. Not so interestingly, that frog remained in the slowly heating water indefinitely. The researcher did allow one frog to keep its brain for the attempt, and that frog did in fact jump out. Apparently, the researcher didn’t test the other part of the story consistently by tossing a brain-free frog into already-boiling water. Maybe he could only afford two.

It took further research and an actual paper in The New Psychology in 1897 to present the astonishing conclusion that the actual rate of heating was a factor. The German had raised the water 6-7 degrees Fahrenheit per minute, a little too suspicious for the frog (the one with the brain). An American researcher successfully (and patiently) killed his frogs by raising the water temperature an ever so slight single degree Fahrenheit per every five minutes.

Fast-forwarding to 1995 (others continued working on this “problem,” but I’ll skip ahead), a Harvard University biologist set the record straight, saying “If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot—they don’t sit still for you.” Overshadowed by more notable events in 1995 including the OJ Simpson verdict, few took note of this.

Moral Lessons from Actual Scenarios

The moral of the Frog in the Kettle metaphor (as presented) is worthy of consideration despite the fable’s flaws, yet what might we apply from the real situation? Perhaps the following syndromes should  be noted:

“Frog in the Ever-So-Gently Heated Saucepan Syndrome”
   Institutions and individuals may be susceptible to patiently administered, very gradually increasing sinister threats.

“Hot Saucepan Syndrome”
   A counterpoint to “Frog in the Ever-So-Gently Heated Saucepan Syndrome,” this states that those with malicious intent are unlikely to operate with great patience and subtlety, so we would do well to simply be aware of their obvious threats.

“Abused Frog Syndrome”
   Fully presenting sinister threats will harm or kill you if you are forced into them. Beware of your company, and good luck trying to jump out.

“Careless Frog Syndrome”
   Fully presenting sinister threats will harm or kill you if you throw yourself into them of your own volition. Good luck trying to jump out even after you realize “that was a bad idea.”

“Lobotomized Frog Syndrome”
   One will not make good survival decisions (let alone moral ones) if one’s brain has been removed, figuratively or literally.

Copyright © 2022 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

One response to “Frog in the Kettle: Situation Clarified”

  1. Great Chuck

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