Friday, 29 August 2008

The Monkey Story

The experiment involved 5 monkeys, a cage, a banana, a ladder and, crucially, a water hose.

The 5 monkeys would be locked in a cage, after which a banana was hung from the ceiling with, fortunately for the monkeys (or so it seemed…), a ladder placed right underneath it.

Of course, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, intending to climb it and grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the sadist (euphemistically called “scientist”) would spray the monkey with ice-cold water. In addition, however, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

When a second monkey was about to climb the ladder, the sadist would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, and apply the same treatment to its four fellow inmates; likewise for the third climber and, if they were particularly persistent (or dumb), the fourth one. Then they would have learned their lesson: they were not going to climb the ladder again – banana or no banana.

In order to gain further pleasure or, I guess, prolong the experiment, the sadist outside the cage would then replace one of the monkeys with a new one. As can be expected, the new guy would spot the banana, think “why don’t these idiots go get it?!” and start climbing the ladder. Then, however, it got interesting: the other four monkeys, familiar with the cold-water treatment, would run towards the new guy – and beat him up. The new guy, blissfully unaware of the cold-water history, would get the message: no climbing up the ladder in this cage – banana or no banana.

When the beast outside the cage would replace a second monkey with a new one, the events would repeat themselves – monkey runs towards the ladder; other monkeys beat him up; new monkey does not attempt to climb again – with one notable detail: the first new monkey, who had never received the cold-water treatment himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would, with equal vigour and enthusiasm, join in the beating of the new guy on the block.

When the researcher replaced a third monkey, the same thing happened; likewise for the fourth until, eventually, all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the ones in the cage had any experience or knowledge of the cold-water treatment.

Then, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. Yet, this monkey turned around and asked “why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?” The other four monkeys stopped, looked at each other slightly puzzled and, finally, shrugged their shoulders: “Don’t know. But that’s the way we do things around here”…

I got this story from my colleague, the illustrious Costas Markides. It reminded him – and me – of quite a few of the organisations we have seen. Over the years, all firms develop routines, habits and practices, which we call the firm’s “organisational culture”. As I am sure you know, these cultures can be remarkably different, in terms of what sort of behaviour they value and what they don’t like to see, and what they punish. Always, these habits and conventions have been developed over the course of many years. Very often, nobody actually remembers why they were started in the first place... Quite possibly, the guy with the water hose has long gone.

Don’t just beat up the new monkey – whether it is a new employee, a recent acquisition or a partner; their questioning of “the way we do things round here” may actually be quite a valid one.


26 comments:

Anonymous said...

very interesting blog and does exist in lots of organizations...

But how about the society? Many traditions from the society seems to carry a lot more wisdom

J said...

So true: I know a US company which considers it an contractual breach of terms to exchange salary details with another colleague.

THe person got this on day one as a graduate trainee and after 10 years still binds himself to this oath.

Anonymous said...

I like monkeys.

Anonymous said...

Funny, up until the penultimate paragraph I thought, clearly this is an allegory of minority cultures (with the scientist/sadist being the dominant culture) in society. But, yeah, I can see the corporate thing, too.

Anonymous said...

Someone already noticed that more suitable application would be tyranny of majority, so to speak.
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Along those lines, I would say this mirrors our overall society, where tacit media control is played out. I watched a journey through Iran story on Channel 13 (PBS TV). The story was very neutral, as if it was made by a disinterested party. Say tomorrow the Administration makes a decision to bomb Iran. Day after tomorrow ALL MAJOR station would start broadcasting interviews about oppression, religious nuts in Iran. All of a sudden heart breaking personal stories about "ethnic cleansing" of Kurdish minority in Iran would be splashed all over our screens. Some analysts would place Osama Bin Ladin, or at least Al Zawahry, Osama's deputy, in Teheran. Scientists would be interviewed every day on CNN - we would learn that Iran has months, not years/decades to send ready nukes toward Israel and our bases in Iraq etc etc. In the case of Iran, I would probably join that sudden indoctrination/ brain-washing that has always preceded each unilateral military action. At the end most of the population would join in, not having a clue really - WHY!

Psychologist Frank Lyngholm said...

These "news" have longed to be confirmed since Jung posted his theory of "the Collective Unconscious". Although this isn't exactly how he defined the term, the idea is pretty much the same - past human experiences are store in the Collective Unconscious. And generation after generation is unconciously "guided" by past experiences that are unconcious in the present individual.

In our daily work (developing CEO's empathic skills) we often encounter organizational cultures marked by long past traumatic experiences that become concious for some during the therapeutic process. Our view is that uncertainty and insecurity often have their origin in such collective unconcious traumas.

cheezilla said...

Do the beatings continue because of conditioning OR because the monkeys find a source of power (sadistic pleasure) in the beatings? They have very few options as their captors have all the control. A similar human example: do prisoners wage violent gang war due to conditioned prison culture, or because they are dis-empowered?

Street Saint said...

Do you know the source of the experiment? As far as I can see, one does not exist.

http://blog.stsaint.com/philosophy/?p=1491/

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate this is a useful parable to help explain the importance of change management, I find it very difficult to believe this was a real experiment.

Chimpanzee's do not learn by copying each other, this is a uniqely human trait. Tomasello has conducted scientific studies which show that Chimpanzees learning is emulative rather than imitative, ie they do not learn by copying by try to solve problems for themselves.

Therefore, I find this story very unlikely, and the idea of chimps teaching each other not to go for bananas, to be high implausible.

I would be very grateful if anyone has any idea is the Monkey Story is actually a true story, based on an experiment. Or alternatively, if it was made up by a management coach, to illustrate a point about the organisational culture.

Thanks very much

Adam

Adam

Anonymous said...

about chimps not learning by imitation, that is completely false :P
in alot of ways were not as unique as we think
http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_sapolsky_the_uniqueness_of_humans.html

Anonymous said...

that ted talk is very interesting
i didnt know chimps even had theory of mind!

Anonymous said...

http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_sapolsky_the_uniqueness_of_humans.html

wow chimps even have theory of mind

A U Siddiqui said...

Affecting and embracing change is the difference between human progress and plain monkey business.

Mathew L said...

Sources:

Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88:

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that companies actually depend on this mentality to keep their workers "in line". At least I see that in certain industries (insurance for example).

For years now I have worked for a company that has their philosophies and commitment to quality banners held high like a flag flown over the office for the whole world to see. Funny thing is that nobody in the company lives by this DNA if you will. From top to bottom its a sad joke. Its simply a "good idea" that everyone subscribes to but when the chips down Ethics are the exception vs. the rule and greed takes over at the employee and customers expense.

Over the many years I've been with this company and this industry I've seen the same things over and over again. People are brought in by this flag with high hopes, aspirations and ideas that would refine and revolutionize only to have their wrist slapped and begin being schooled about how things really operate. Innovation is frowned upon and eventually you become one of the fold or in your example, one of the Monkeys.

Another funny thing is that like the monkeys in your example none of the monkeys know why things are done this way, only that they are and resistance is futile, they are often mocked for this learned and taught behavior. In other words if you've been with the company for any lengthy of time your seen as damaged, jaded by political strife and office politics. They want to replace you with a new monkey who is fresh and positive. Of coarse this is discussed in riddles and analogies which assumes the monkeys are too ignorant to understand. In essense the problem is that these older monkeys can no longer convincingly "keep up the act". Seems like a live example of the "objects in motion" theory continuing the companies downward spiral.

My question then is this? While horribly discouraging is this Corporate America today? Has Greed taken such a hold that ethics and fairness are meerly a fairy tale.

If so no wonder other global economies are steaming ahead profiting from our ignorance and overly inflated sense of pride as the largest consumer market in the world.

Anonymous said...

do you have any references about this experiment, any scientific paper? Because the only thing I found about it is always the same : "I heard a story..." and i never found the original one.
Thanks for helping

Anonymous said...

What is the scientific name of this experiment? If it did in fact take place...

Anonymous said...

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Did_the_monkey_banana_and_water_spray_experiment_ever_take_place

Anonymous said...

it is indeed true that in every given situation attitude matters a lot....

LCD Drawer said...

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

Anonymous said...

What about the old habit the new monkey brings in from it's previous cage?

Anonymous said...

So I want to know who's the jerk spraying monkeys with the hose? That's when all the problems started!

Laurens Bonnema said...

Thing is, the monkey experiment referred to here did not involve cold water but a blast of air. And… the results were not as conclusive as commonly described. It's the archetypical "broodje aap" verhaal where relevant facts are twisted or even omitted to fit the story one wants to tell. The actual tests were run with unisexual pairs, i.e. two males or two females. Male monkeys showed the "this is how we've always done it" behavior. Female monkeys did not. Quite the opposite in fact. More importantly, the total number of monkeys involved was eight (4 males, 4 females). Hardly a statistically significant number of subjects.

Sirfer said...

It is quite amazing to see the various interpretations and detailed logic behind the posts......when all I was thinking when I got to the bottom of the story was....dang, will you look at that.. a talking freaking monkey.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, I shared this story and someone was so offended he had to leave the meeting we were in because of racial slurs that he said were present.

I never saw this as any sort of racial story. Apparently a wet monkey or spraying a monkey with water could be seen as a racial slur by African American people...

Thought?

galas said...

You work with assholes