Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Five Monkeys in a Cage" Is Its Own Monkey Story

If you have attended a motivational speech recently, you likely have heard this story:
There was an interesting experiment that started with five monkeys in a cage. A banana hung inside the cage with a set of steps placed underneath it. After a while, a monkey went to the steps and started to climb towards the banana, but when he touched the steps, he set off a spray that soaked all the other monkeys with cold water. Another monkey tried to reach the banana with the same result. It didn't take long for the monkeys to learn that the best way to stay dry was to prevent any monkey from attempting to reach the banana.

The next stage of the experiment was to remove the spray from the cage and to replace one of the monkeys with a new one. Of course, the new monkey saw the banana and went over to climb the steps. To his horror, the other monkeys attacked him. After another attempt, he learnt that if he touched the steps, he would be assaulted.

Next, another of the original five was replaced with a new monkey. The newcomer went to the steps and was attacked. The previous newcomer joined in the attack with enthusiasm!
Then, a third monkey was replaced with a new one and then a fourth. Every time a newcomer approached the steps, he was attacked. Most of the monkeys beating him had no idea why they were not allowed to climb the steps or why they were joining in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fifth monkey, none of the monkeys had ever been sprayed with water. Still, no monkey ever approached the steps. Why not? Because as far as they knew it was the way it had always been done around here...and that is how company policy begins.

Or racism. Or religion. Or Aunt Gertrude using a certain sized pot to make roast.

(Not wanting to withhold a multimedia learning experience from you, you can watch the full length motion picture here, starring Ashton Kutcher and Keanu Reeves.)

I grew suspicious of that story, so I’ve been trying to corroborate it. Curiously, I cannot. I do find a multitude of retellings with variations, which makes me more suspicious. Some n-th degree sources suggest that the experiment may have some origin with the famous Harlow rhesus monkey experiments.

But that brings up another interesting point, at least about humans and their desire to construct just-so stories to explain vexing phenomena. Most versions of the story purport to explain how corporate policy gets made, by which we have all been unceremoniously doused. And we rage inside against it in our cubicles. Or we complain at the water cooler about the guys upstairs in their ivory towers who don't understand what we go through down here in the trenches, on the front, everyday, slaving away for this measly check. Ultimately, a funny story gets written about how monkeys are used in an authoritative sounding experiment to help explain how corporate policies or unreasonable social norms develop, possibly for long forgotten reasons, and get passed along to robotically observing generations. The explanation gives us a sense of order to the universe that helps us cope with the world we can't control. But of course, I haven't conducted an experiment yet to prove that proposition.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a story’s credibility that attempts to explain unquestioned adherence to cultural norms is unquestioned for years? The story is its own monkey story! How’s that for self-referencing?

Unfortunately, the “best explanation” is usually the most emotionally satisfying one. It could also be the most dangerous one, too. And the Five Monkeys Experiment is a beautiful example of how that can be, not for it's uncorroborated content, but for the way the story has a life of its own.


Wayne Cerullo said...

Great observation! Similarly, all of us world-changing business leaders flock like lemmings to these books and seminars to all get trained by respected consultants on how to be original thinkers! (Hey, who turned off the shower?) (;-)

Paul said...

I've always heard the story told as a joke. It never occurred to me to wonder if it was a real experiment.

Robert D. Brown III said...

Each time I've heard the story or read it, it is offered as explanatory based on actual experiments. Maybe I just don't have a refined enough sense of humor to detect the intended joke. :/

Paul said...

Or maybe it was the way it was told to you. Maybe that's another twist on the meta-story of the monkey story.