What’s Up With Frogs and Boiling Water?

You’ve probably heard the “frogs in boiling water” metaphor used a lot in daily life. It’s almost always used when we’re talking about gradual change, in both positive and negative contexts. Most of us probably just took this story for granted as a piece of common knowledge. Regardless of its truthfulness, it’s both a compelling and easy way to understand gradual change, which is probably why we just freely talk about frogs and boiling water without ever thinking more about it. But now you’re thinking about it. What’s up with frogs and boiling water?

Further Reading: What’s the Difference Between Frogs and Toads?

Popular Uses

The boiling frog is often invoked in politics as a metaphor for the erosion of civil rights and liberties. You know the whole “losing the privilege of X will eventually lead to the loss of Y” and so on. Politically it was popularly invoked during the Cold War, and later in the 90s regarding climate change.

Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel, The Story of B (1996) is often pointed to when discussing the boiling frog. In The Story of B, Quinn dedicates a chapter to the story; the boiling frog is invoked as an analog for human history. `

Outside of politics, the story is often invoked as an analog for abusive relationships. Chiefly, the story explains why one might stay in a clearly abusive relationship, despite the apparent irrationality of it. The boiling frog is also posited as a response to the Sorites paradox. Basically, if you have a heap of sand and move one grain at a time into a new pile, at what point does the new pile become a heap?

What Happens If You Actually Boil a Frog?

Alright, big ticket question. You were probably mostly wondering if the story was actually true. Luckily for us, this has been tested before, in the 19th century. This is, however, quite unfortunate for frog-kind. 

In 1869 a guy named Friedrich Goltz put frogs in slowly-boiled water, and a frog would jump out once the water hit around 25 degrees Celsius (water boils at 100). He also found that a frog with its brain removed would just sit in the water, which sounds really intuitive, but go off, we guess? The rate of temperature increase was about 3.8 degrees Celsius per minute. Later experiments in the 1880s would contest this claim, holding that heating a frog at about 0.2 degrees Celsius per minute would prevent the frog from reacting. 

But as recently as the early 2000s biologists have largely contested the claim, citing that frogs get increasingly active as the temperature of their water increases anyway. So while frogs are able to detect temperature increases, we’re not really in the same boat. Or pot

More things that are frogs, but aren’t really frogs, here.