If you are like me, you may have heard this story at work, at seminars or in discussions about “group-think” or corporate organizational behavior. It goes something like this:
A primatologist gets five monkeys together in a cage, places a ladder in the middle of the cage and then places a banana on top of the ladder. Naturally, one of the monkeys quickly spots the banana and races up to the top of the ladder to snatch it before any of his buddies beat him to it.
But, just as he is reaching for the fruit, our primatologist (probably giggling maniacally as he does it) sprays the first-mover monkey with ice-cold water, chasing him off the ladder and leaving him wet and cold, shivering at the bottom. The primatologist then douses EVERY OTHER MONKEY in the cage with ice-cold water too, thus punishing everyone for the transgressions of the first-mover.
Over the next few hours, this scene is repeated several times as the monkeys repeatedly try to scale the ladder and grab the banana, only to be sprayed with ice-cold water with all their friends too. Soon, the five monkeys learn: DO NOT GO UP THE LADDER UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE COLD, WET AND MISERABLE.
Then the group starts to self-police. If one of them forgets, or just doesn’t understand and makes a move to go up the ladder, he is immediately grabbed by the other four monkeys and beaten up because the others do not want to be punished for HIS transgression.
But here is where the experiment gets interesting: the primatologist then replaces one of the monkeys in the cage with a new, naive monkey. Sure enough, the new guy immediately spots the banana and races up the ladder to grab it, only to be mobbed by the other four “experienced” monkeys who know the rules and drag him off the ladder before they get the hose again. Soon, the new guy learns the rules too: NO CLIMBING THE LADDER EVEN IF THERE IS A BANANA AT THE TOP!
Over the next several days, the primatologist replaces each monkey in the cage with a new, naive monkey who quickly learns the rules of the cage and even enthusiastically joins the beatings of subsequent, hapless inductees. The cage now has a “culture” and new members are systematically introduced to it as they arrive.
Within a short period of time, after several replacements, the original five monkeys are no longer in the cage, and yet, the culture persists. There are no longer any monkeys in the cage who have ever been doused by cold water - they have no direct experience of the consequences of attempting to scale the ladder and to snatch the banana. And yet, they continue to teach their new comrades the “cage-culture” lesson: DO NOT CLIMB THE LADDER OR WE WILL BEAT THE CRAP OUT OF YOU. And yet, none of them know why.
It has been expounded on here, strangely enough, as a warning against expansive government power.
It has been held up here as a demonstration of sadistic experimentation on the part of the primatologist - sort of a monkey Milgram’s Experiment.
The only problem is:
The story isn’t true. The primatologist never existed. There never was an experiment that was designed this way. The story is almost wholly apocryphal.
I have found nothing like this experiment cited in the scientific literature. The closest thing that I can put my finger on is this study:
The author succinctly describes the motivation of the study thusly: “My particular interest was whether the learned avoidance behavior of a conditioned monkey toward a conditioning object could induce a lasting effect on the behavior of a second monkey toward that same object.”
This study has no bands of angry monkeys enforcing mob-rule, no sadistic experimenters dumping buckets of ice-cold water on unsuspecting subjects, and no GroupThink enforcers defending the corporate culture from newcomers’ dangerous innovative ideas. In short, we’ve all been had by an urban legend.
So, a parable about the dangers of GroupThink, received wisdom, the argument from authority and status quo bias was derived from a scientific study that was simply trying to determine whether behavioral patterns could be transmitted from one monkey to another in the absence of language.
The study has been misinterpreted, taken as authoritative, converted into folk wisdom, and perpetuated and re-posted to support pre-conceived biases of the authors.
In short, we have fallen victim to the very MonkeyThink tendencies that this story was meant to warn against. Our inborn tendencies to defer to received wisdom, to punish others who do not conform to authority, and to view events through the prism of our pre-conceived notions, have led us to hear this story of the Five Monkeys and uncritically accept it as evidence of whatever half-baked corporate nonsense is fashionable at the time.
Got a problem with group dynamics at work? Tell ‘em the one about the 5 Monkeys.
Got status quo bias? 5 Monkeys is the ticket.
Got a beef against big government? 5 Monkeys.
Anti-banana? 5 Monkeys.
Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. Instead of uncritically accepting something that you’ve read because it seems to conform with what you already know, we should always strive to question folk wisdom, find the facts for ourselves, recognize our biases, recognize the biases of others, and avoid facile answers to complicated questions.
Follow the advice that Rudyard Kipling put into the mouth of the indefatigable Rikki Tikki Tavi as the most important lesson taught to young mongooses:
Go and find out for yourself.