Three buckets experiment

Three buckets experiment

The three buckets experiment is the one that takes the most setting up – but that said it is only filling three buckets of water.

Take your three buckets and fill one with cold water, one with hot water, and one with lukewarm water. Make sure that the hot water is not so hot that you won’t be able to put your hand in it safely for two minutes. And if the cold water is only just below room temperature put some ice-cubes in it.

Now place your left hand in the bucket of cold water, and your right in the bucket of hot water. Keep them in the water for two minutes, and make sure that they’re in as far to the wrist as possible. The further you can immerse your hand the more successful the experiment will be.

After two minutes take your hands out of the buckets of water and put them both in the bucket of lukewarm water. Now something quite strange will happen. Although they’re in the same bucket your hands will feel completely different temperatures. Your left hand, from the cold water, will experience the lukewarm water as pleasantly hot. Your right hand though will experience it as cold, having just come from the hot water.

The reason behind this is “sensory adaptation”, the process by which we become less responsive to continually experienced stimuli. Think of when we meet someone wearing perfume or aftershave. At first we’re very aware of the scent, but overtime it recedes from our attention. That’s not because the scent is fading – it’s because we’ve become habituated to it. And that’s why people who wear the same scent all the time can end up wearing more and more – because it takes more and more for them to be conscious of it.

If you found this experiment with three buckets interesting why try one using just a watch.  Or why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of psychology and relationships.