Steve Fenton

The Boy Who Cried Wolf – An Alternative Ending

As ancient fables go, The Boy Who Cried Wolf is certainly one of the big ones. For those who haven’t yet heard it, well done! Teachers love to tell this story in an attempt to instruct students on morals, though this is misguided as the story may increase a child’s propensity to lie (NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children). But anyway, the abridged version goes like this…

“On the outskirts of a small village, a boy is looking after all the sheeps (sic). Several times, he sounds the alarm to call upon the villagers for help. ‘WOLF!’ he cries. The villagers rush to help the boy only to discover there is no wolf in sight. Later, they hear the boy shout ‘WOLF!’, but assuming this is another false alarm they ignore the call. The helpless boy is then killed by the wolf.”

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

The moral pushed by this story is that if you “cry wolf” (lie) too often, eventually everyone will assume whatever you say is a lie, even when you tell the truth.

An alternative explanation is that the boy was anxious, having been told to look out for wolves. It is possible that in this state of high anxiety, he made mistakes. That old bush near the tree-line, given the right angle of light from the sun, might be mistaken for a wolf. Perhaps the moral of the story is that the boy needed a better mentor.

In the operations monitoring world, this fable could be an illustration of the constant balancing act for alarms, as described in the alerting principles. If an alarm sounds regularly when there’s no service-impacting issue, it eventually becomes background noise and may be ignored when it eventually sounds during a critical issue. It’s the original story, with fewer sheeps.

However, the explanation I offer is simply this. The boy did see a wolf on each occasion he cried out. But, by the time the villagers arrived the wolf had been scared away by the noise of their approach. The final time, when the villagers didn’t respond, the wolf continued his approach and the boy was killed.

This explanation might even have occurred to the villagers, but humans will sooner embrace a narrative fallacy rather than face cognitive dissonance, so they began to spin a story about the boy who lied too much and it made them feel a lot better than if they accepted the guilt of ignoring the alarm.

Image: Francis Barlow, 1687. Public Domain.

Written by Steve Fenton on