It’s a good day in the arena.The ever-present sun is shining, and weather couldn’t be more perfect for the games. The girls have feasted and rested as sisters, but now will be pitted against each other. Will a victor emerge to hold back the onslaught? Tension builds as the competitors grow anxious. They came prepared and will do anything to claim the prize.
Then it appears – one of the girls reaches down and tears the prize free. But as she looks up, a competitor snatches it from her grasp. The rest of the girls are off, and the games are in full swing. They jostle and jockey for position, the prize changes hands back and forth, no one is giving it up easily. A leader appears to emerge. A true warrior, like a shadow in the night she dodges left, then right, and with fire in her eyes, breaks free, still clutching the prize. No one can catch her now, she is in the clear and still maneuvering quickly. Just as victory seems imminent, she looks down. Her eyes widen and confusion comes across her face. The prize is not what she thought, and in that brief moment of uncertainty, she fumbles. Another competitor scoops up the prize. “Athena be cursed!” she cries, but there is no time to think, she gets back in the game.
The girls in this story were all chicks. Yes, fluffy little baby chickens. And the arena was the cardboard box we raised them in. The prize was a piece of their newspaper bedding that they liked to tear apart. Hence the name of the game “Who’s got the Poo Poo Paper?”
Every evening, we would sit and watch the girls. They had a routine they cycled through every 30 minutes or so. Eat some mash, take a nap, then start pecking around again. Inevitably one of them would tear away a piece of the newspaper. And immediately everyone else wanted to get their beak on it. When a victor emerged, she would quickly realize that the prize was just a poopy piece of newspaper. She would drop it uninterested, until another picked it up thus making it desirable again.
Now that they are older, it’s more obvious why this instinct was built into them. Like their ancestor, the red junglefowl, our chickens roam the fields, and a prize pulled from the ground is usually a worm – a worthy prize. There was a time when the victor was able to eat more and outlive the others. But it’s now 2016, and the ladies grew up in a cardboard brooder – an artificial environment with unending food supply. They had all they needed right there, plenty for everyone, and yet they can’t seem escape their genetically ingrained behavior to want what someone else has.
Even though the chickens thrive in the new environment, there are certain behaviors they never unlearn. That’s what makes us humans superior to them. We can learn new behaviors, reason, use science and math to come to rational decisions. But do we really?
Imagine you are walking through an empty market, you are going to buy some apples. Like the rest of the stands, the apple stand is empty. Then you spot a stand that has drawn a crowd of people clamoring to get at the goods. Do you immediately think, ‘perfect there’s no crowd at the apple stand?’ or do you suddenly need what everyone else is after? Of course, these traits served our ancestors well in times of scarcity. It allowed them survive, thrive, and multiply to pass these gifts onto us.
But not all of these traits serve us well these days. Take a look at our reactions to the market. Stock trading was not around a million years ago when our ancestors had to use their fight of flight reflexes to stay alive. Now an old instinct that responds to the fear of loss drives us to sell when there is a crash, the opposite of what can really help us. Luxury marketers target our instincts by creating value where there is none, and preying on our fear of scarcity. But at least we can learn to overcome these urges.
The world is changing faster than we can. It took millions of years for us to become who we are, but now we are seeing leaps made in technology and lifestyle within decades. We are taken out of forests, farms, and villages and placed into factories and offices. Where our ancestors faced scarcity, we face abundance. Like the chicks, we grew up in a new environment with everything we need. But day after day, we chase the poo poo paper without really thinking about what makes us happy.
We don’t have to fight for our dinner, we just have to select the right one. We can reason, so we choose what’s delicious, healthy and affordable, right? We all have an idea of what foods and sources are best for us. Will we heed the facts or let our taste buds do the thinking? For our ancestors, salty, fatty, sweet were rare things that their bodies craved, and they struggled to get them. Now we’ve come to fooling our bodies with sweet drinks that have no nutritional value.
In many ways, this world is better for us, but we are arriving with some outdated programing. If we can overcome our natural tendencies, there are real prizes to be had. So do we take advantage of all the abundance we have, weighing how our decisions affect our health, wealth, and well-being, or do we spend our lives chasing poo poo paper?