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The Scorpion and the Frog: A Fable for Contemporary Times

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Nordin
June 10, 2021

A frog was hopping along the shore of a river looking for a place to cross. He came upon a scorpion sitting on the shore. “Hello, friend frog,” said the scorpion. “It appears you are looking to cross the river. I too want to cross. Would you mind carrying me?”

The frog was taken aback. “Why, if I let you on my back to cross the river, you’d sting me and I would die. I don’t think I’ll do that.”

The scorpion immediately replied, “There is no logic to your concern. If I sting you and you die, I will surely die as well, since I can’t swim. I wouldn’t need a ride if I could swim.”

The frog thought a moment and then said, “Your logic makes sense. Why would you kill me if it would result in your death? Come along and climb on my back and we’ll cross this river.”

The scorpion climbed on the frog’s back and off they went to cross the river.

About halfway across the river, the scorpion raised its tail and stung the frog. The frog was both astounded and disconsolate. “Why did you sting me? Now I will die and you will surely drown and die also.”

The scorpion replied, “I can’t help it. It’s who I am. It’s in my nature.”

The origin of this fable is muddled. Most guesses indicate it is from India, although that story didn’t include either a frog or a scorpion. An alternate version of the story tells how the scorpion gets a ride on a turtle. In this version, in the middle of the river, when the scorpion attempts to sting the turtle, the turtle’s shell prevents any damage. The turtle is baffled; the scorpion must have known its stinger would have no impact through its shell. The scorpion responds that it acted neither out of malice nor ingratitude, but merely an irresistible and indiscriminate urge to sting. 

The turtle then delivers the following reflection: “Truly have the sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one’s honor to the wind and to involve one’s own self in embarrassment.”

French sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron saw the scorpion as a metaphor for Machiavellian politicians who delude themselves with their unconscious tendency to rationalize ill-conceived plans, leading themselves and their followers to ruin.

Denhardt and Denhardt offer another possible explanation: groupthink.

Irving Janis first defined groupthink as, “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Conformity overcomes good decisions.

There are several characteristics of groupthink. Members of the group have an illusion of morality; they believe the group’s position, whatever it is, is inherently ethical and moral when compared to positions held by other individuals or groups; they engage in negative stereotyping of other people and groups, viewing them as “outsiders” or “enemies” and too different to negotiate with; they produce an illusion of invulnerability, making decisions seem less risky than they are; they use rationalization to discredit information critical of the group and frequently self-censor dissenting views to minimize the amount of critical or contrary information to which the group is exposed. Group members may act egregiously in areas outside of the group’s position, provided they maintain their loyalty to the group’s position. The illusion of unanimity results in the belief that everyone in the group has confidence in the group’s decisions and judgements.

We know groupthink can have disastrous consequences. It is widely credited for causing the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy’s advisors all thought one way and refused to look at alternatives. Fortunately for everyone, they finally listened to an “outsider” and a potential war was averted.

In the case of the Challenger disaster, groupthink won and the space shuttle crew lost their lives. There were numerous warnings from experts but the group’s illusion of invulnerability reinforced their decision as being less risky than it was. Not only were innocent lives lost, but also NASA’s space program was set back years.

In the recent example of a potential January 6th Commission, the illusion of morality made negotiations unthinkable. The “others” were too different to negotiate with. It is ironic that it’s the turtle (which happens to be one of Mitch McConnell’s nicknames) who says, “The sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one’s honor to the wind, and to involve one’s own self in embarrassment.”

Most fables have a stated moral but it is difficult to find one here. It can’t be that some people are evil and that’s just the way it is. Fables’ morals give advice for how to live. (“The Tortoise and the Hare,” tells us that slow and steady wins the race.) However, groupthink provides us with advice: Be open; listen. Do not discard ideas because of their origins. Democracy is based on many voices being heard and honored. Do not succumb to groupthink—in any group.

There are examples to support this advice. Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as A Team of Rivals. Research shows none of Lincoln’s cabinet agreed with him or thought he was worthy of the presidency when he was elected. When asked about the acrimony within his cabinet and constant disagreement, he replied that if he had chosen people who would agree with him, he wouldn’t need a cabinet; he could decide by himself. When it was learned he intended to issue an emancipation proclamation, he was asked if he had discussed it with his cabinet and he replied that there had been heated discussion. He was asked if a vote had been taken and he is alleged to have replied, “Yes. The vote was one for and the rest opposed. The one carried.” While the one carried, Lincoln also was advised to delay issuance until the Union Army had won a major victory—advice he followed.

There is a modern version of scorpion fable, as well. In it, a young elephant is looking for a place to cross the river. He is approached by the scorpion, who asks for a ride on his back and the elephant offers the same concerns as the other versions (even though he knows it is very unlikely the scorpion’s sting can kill him). As in other versions, the scorpion disputes the logic, noting his own demise. The elephant agrees to carry the scorpion across the river but tells the scorpion it should perch on the end of its trunk, since his back would be mostly underwater. The elephant would, of course, keep his trunk above water to enable him to breath.

Across the river they go and about halfway across, the scorpion raises its tail to strike. The elephant exhales sharply and shakes his trunk, and the scorpion flies into the water. The scorpion wails, “Why did you do that? I didn’t sting you!”

The elephant replies, “Oh, I know you didn’t sting me. But I know the story of you and the frog.”

Author: James Nordin, adjunct professor in the MPA program at Sonoma State University, is a retired federal civil servant with more than 33 years of service as a grants and financial manager and program director for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. He has a passion for social equity and created and endowed ASPA’s Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Award. Jim received his BA from Knox College, his MPA from Roosevelt University and his DPA from the University of Southern California and can be reached at [email protected].

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