What We Can Learn From The Ant & The Grasshopper

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Once there lived an ant and a grasshopper in a grassy meadow.  All day long the ant would work hard, collecting grains of wheat from the farmer’s field far away. She would hurry to the field every morning, as soon as it was light enough to see by, and toil back with a heavy grain of wheat balanced on her head. She would put the grain of wheat carefully away in her larder, and then hurry back to the field for another one. All day long she would work, without stop or rest, scurrying back and forth from the field, collecting the grains of wheat and storing them carefully in her larder.  

The grasshopper would look at her and laugh. ‘Why do you work so hard, dear ant?’ he would say. ‘Come, rest awhile, listen to my song. Summer is here, the days are long and bright. Why waste the sunshine in labour and toil?’The ant would ignore him, and head bent, would just hurry to the field a little faster. This would make the grasshopper laugh even louder. ‘What a silly little ant you are!’ he would call after her. ‘Come, come and dance with me! Forget about work! Enjoy the summer! Live a little!’ And the grasshopper would hop away across the meadow, singing and dancing merrily.

Summer faded into autumn, and autumn turned into winter. The sun was hardly seen, and the days were short and grey, the nights long and dark. It became freezing cold, and snow began to fall.  The grasshopper didn’t feel like singing any more. He was cold and hungry. He had nowhere to shelter from the snow, and nothing to eat. The meadow and the farmer’s field were covered in snow, and there was no food to be had. ‘Oh what shall I do? Where shall I go?’ wailed the grasshopper. Suddenly he remembered the ant. ‘Ah – I shall go to the ant and ask her for food and shelter!’ declared the grasshopper, perking up. So off he went to the ant’s house and knocked at her door. ‘Hello ant!’ he cried cheerfully. ‘Here I am, to sing for you, as I warm myself by your fire, while you get me some food from that larder of yours!’  The ant looked at the grasshopper and said, ‘All summer long I worked hard while you made fun of me, and sang and danced. You should have thought of winter then! Find somewhere else to sing, grasshopper! There is no warmth or food for you here!’ And the ant shut the door in the grasshopper’s face.

It is wise to worry about tomorrow today.

- Retold from Aesop by Rohini Chowdhury 

In this tale, originally one of the Aesop’s fables, the take-away lesson is that “it is wise to worry about tomorrow today.”  The ant, who works hard and plans for the future, is rewarded, and the grasshopper, who wasted his time singing and dancing, is punished.  The fable serves as a warning of danger to those who act too much like a grasshopper.  In the fable, there is a clear right way – that of the ant – and a clear wrong way – that of the grasshopper.

We might say that the ant represents our (good) intrinsic motivation to work hard and be successful and the grasshopper represents our (bad) intrinsic motivation toward self-preservation and indulgence.  Black and white.  Good and bad.  This has been our traditional understanding of character: we need to feed our inner ant and suppress that grasshopper.

Out of Character

David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo propose this “ant and grasshopper model” of character in their book, Out of Character.  They do a wonderful job of arguing that character is not a fixed trait, as people often think, but it is rather in a state of constant negotiation.  Through original research experiments, they demonstrate that the struggle between two psychological forces, what they refer to as the ant (long-term benefit) and the grasshopper (short-term benefit), determines what we might be capable of at any given time.  Further, they indicate that these forces are not necessarily “good” and “bad,” (as is often portrayed in the angel/devil model) but rather each are critical for our survival.

The ant is the force within each of us that is looking for long-term gains.  It is the voice within that is often represented with the angel, telling us not to cheat on our partner, overindulge in desserts, or gamble away our life savings.  The grasshopper is the force within us, often represented by the devil, that is looking for immediate rewards.  It is the voice that drives us to eat that cupcake, go on that first date, and take the gamble to start that new business.

The ant and the grasshopper both serve to enhance our survival, but they work on different time-frames: “Evolution provided the mind with competing instincts and intuitions–some focused on gain in the here and now, others urging us to delay gratification and focus on what is to come” (p. 21)  The ant looks out for our long-term future.  The grasshopper looks out for our short-term survival.

The primary point that DeStano and Valdesolo make is that both of these forces are important and both can be beneficial.  They are both looking out for our best interest, but which is most valuable is determined by circumstances.  The grasshopper is the force that propels us to take risks.  In the circumstances of a teen being dared to participate in a drag-race, this is not a very helpful force; however, in the case of a business person starting a new business, it might be just the force that pushes him to great successes.  The ant is the force that pushes us to plan ahead.  This is extremely beneficial to completing a long-term project, but not quite as helpful when faced with the last-minute request to present a speech to a room full of people.

Interestingly, there are specific brain areas associated with both the ant and the grasshopper.  The “ant” is our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for high level thinking and our executive functions, (planning complex behavior, planning, decision making and impulse control).  Think of the prefrontal cortex as the government of the brain. The “grasshopper” is our amygdala, which is responsible for taking in emotional sensory information and deciding how to respond.  The amygdala is activated during our “fight or flight” response.

So why is this important?  Because when we understand the way the ant and the grasshopper work, we have a better understanding of how to control them. We can begin to understand how to feed the ant and keep the grasshopper in check.  We can be empowered to make resilient choices.

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D. is a resilience educator and author of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.  For more information about her work, see www.URResilient.com.

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