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Five Monkeys in a Cage

By Brian | October 2, 2009 | Share on Facebook

[This story was related to me at a leadership seminar today. I don't know if it's true, but regardless, I found it very insightful]

A group of scientists put five monkeys in a cage. Hanging from the ceiling, in the middle of the cage, was a banana. Just under the banana was a wooden crate that the monkeys could use to climb up to the banana.

The first time the monkeys were put in the cage, they all naturally went for the banana. When they did this, the scientists turned an industrial strength fire hose on them and forced them down off the crate. They repeated this procedure for a period of time, until eventually, the monkeys would sit in the cage without attempting to take the banana.

At that point, the scientists replaced one of the monkeys with a another monkey who had not participated in the experiment up until this point. The first time this group of monkeys was put in the cage, four of them sat idly by, while the fifth monkey (the newcomer) went for the banana. Again, the scientists got out the fire hose, but they did not spray only the monkey who went for the banana, they sprayed all the monkeys in the cage. They repeated this procedure for a period of time as well (each time with four of the original monkeys, and one monkey who was brand new to the cage). Eventually, the fire hose became unnecessary, because when the newcomer went for the banana, the other four monkeys would forcibly prevent it from doing so. A few trials later, the scientists once again had five monkeys who would sit idly in the cage with the banana dangling from the ceiling.

The above process was repeated several more times, until eventually, the scientists had five monkeys who would sit in the cage and not take the banana, but had absolutely no idea why.

——————————

Moral of the story: when someone tells you something has to be done a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” challenge their logic. It’s quite possible that the real reason has long since vanished.

Topics: Random Acts of Blogging | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “Five Monkeys in a Cage”

  1. Jason says at October 2nd, 2009 at 1:04 am :
    So we know that monkeys don’t communicate for sure?

  2. Jeff Porten says at October 2nd, 2009 at 1:14 am :
    When the monkeys start throwing feces at the guy with the hose, what’s that a metaphor for?

  3. Janet says at October 2nd, 2009 at 7:25 am :
    Setting aside my hope that it’s a metaphor because setting an industrial-strength fire hose on monkeys doesn’t sound like the way to treat lab animals, my real question is this:

    when did “insightful” become a word?

    None of us would have used it 20 years ago. (Some of us still prefer not to.)

    Without William Safire, we may never know. And I have to say, hearing Daniel Schorr talk this week about the loss of his friend has been a really moving testament to the power of human connections, and the depth of human grief.

  4. Brian says at October 2nd, 2009 at 9:56 am :
    @Jason – The point is that you wind up with five monkeys who’ve never seen the hose. Now, whether they discuss the hose amongst each other without the scientists knowing, that’s a more philisophical question, I guess…

    @Jeff – I’d say it’s a metaphor for smart monkeys. ;-)

    @Janet – What’s wrong with “insightful?” Dictionary.com says “characterized by or displaying insight; perceptive. Origin: 1905-1910″ Am I missing something?

  5. Janet says at October 2nd, 2009 at 5:04 pm :
    I’m not quibbling with its meaning, or denying that it is a word. I’m a little surprised that dictionary.com puts its origin that long ago, but not very surprised; what we really need to do is run it by OED. Whenever it began, there’s no doubt that it MUCH more commonly used now that twenty years ago; I would argue over-used, but that’s just an opinion. Personally, I find it awkward business-speak, along with “analogize.” I mean, what does it say that it’s “characterized by or displaying insight; perceptive” – what insight? what perceptions?YOUR point was not that the story had a point, but that it was meaningful to you; “insightful,” particularly as my students use it, becomes a general and generally meaningless descriptor, like “interesting.” I doubt Daniel Schorr has ever used it, or William Safire.

  6. Jason says at October 2nd, 2009 at 7:44 pm :
    @Brian, have you ever jumped off a bridge or seen someone jump off a bridge? And don’t think it is a philosophical question about the monkeys discussing, it’s a cognitive science question.

  7. Brian says at October 2nd, 2009 at 9:24 pm :
    I’m so confused…

    @Janet: I thought the story contained great insight into why companies often develop organizational inertia, as did the managing director that told the story during the leadership seminar. I’m not being snarky, I really am confused – what’s wrong with what I wrote?

    @Jason – replace the monkeys with people and the banana with a stack of cash. At the end of the experiment, you’d have five poeple in the cage who would not try to take the cash, and none of them would have any idea why (i.e., none of them would ever have been sprayed with a hose for trying – all they would know is that when they try to take the cash, the other pepole beat them up for it). They could talk to each other all they want, but would never really understand why they don’t take the cash.

    Perhaps this isn’t as good a story as I thought it was? :-(

  8. Janet says at October 2nd, 2009 at 10:38 pm :
    I’m not meaning to be snarky, either. But saying it was insightful, as you did at the beginning, didn’t tell us why you valued it; you just did, now, when you said it gave you “insight into why companies often develop organizational inertia.” My point was just that “insightful” on its own doesn’t really say anything, just like “interesting” – it seems to offer something of substance, but is in fact fairly empty. You could add “worthwhile” to the list, and lots of others; “insightful” just bugs me (and that’s a personal thing) because I hear it as a new thing that doesn’t give us anything. I’ve got no problems with language growing and changing, but the flood of “insightful” comments just feels to me like change without value added. In the context of your seminar, meaning was implied by the topic on the table; out of that context, to label it “insightful” doesn’t tell us much. Or at least doesn’t tell me much. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to move into paper-grading mode. Somehow the combination of my associations with the word, Safire’s death, and Schorr’s remembrances of him on NPR touched a chord in me, but clearly not in anyone else!

  9. Janet says at October 6th, 2009 at 10:42 pm :
    OK, so I had a chance to check out OED today (not that you probably care very much, especially tonight). “Insightful” was first used in 1907, in a Galsworthy novel. It wasn’t used again until 1932 (by the British Journal of Psychology). The next eight citations (1934, 1945, 1951, 1955, 1957, 1967, 1970, 1973) are all pretty much all in academic contexts. So I do think it is fairly recent that it has entered common parlance. BTW, OED defines it as “characterized by insight.”

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