The ethologist John B. Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink” to describe the collapse in behavior which resulted from overcrowding. Over a number of years, Calhoun conducted over-population experiments on rats which culminated in 1962 with the publication of an article in the Scientific American of a study of behavior under conditions of overcrowding. In it, Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink”. Calhoun’s work became used as an animal model of societal collapse, and his study has become a touchstone of urban sociology and psychology in general.
In it, Calhoun described the behavior as follows:
“ Many [female rats] were unable to carry pregnancy to full term or to survive delivery of their litters if they did. An even greater number, after successfully giving birth, fell short in their maternal functions. Among the males the behavior disturbances ranged from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal from which individuals would emerge to eat, drink and move about only when other members of the community were asleep. The social organization of the animals showed equal disruption. […]
The common source of these disturbances became most dramatically apparent in the populations of our first series of three experiments, in which we observed the development of what we called a behavioral sink. The animals would crowd together in greatest number in one of the four interconnecting pens in which the colony was maintained. As many as 60 of the 80 rats in each experimental population would assemble in one pen during periods of feeding. Individual rats would rarely eat except in the company of other rats. As a result extreme population densities developed in the pen adopted for eating, leaving the others with sparse populations.
[…] In the experiments in which the behavioral sink developed, infant mortality ran as high as 96 percent among the most disoriented groups in the population.
Calhoun would continue his experiments for many years, but the publication of the 1962 article put the concept in the public domain, where it took root in popular culture as an analogy for human behavior.
Calhoun retired from NIMH in 1984, but continued to work on his research results until his death on September 7, 1995.