Wet Monkey Theory

I have no idea if this is truth or fiction (I’m guessing fiction), but it’s an interesting metaphor for the dangers of groupthink:

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all the other monkeys with cold water. After a while another monkey makes the attempt with same result, all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put the cold water away. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not?

Because as far as they know that is the way it has always been done around here.

(via MahouSniper)

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  • DDM

    Monkeys can’t communicate in words, so they naturally wouldn’t know why they’re doing it, so wouldn’t try to see what happens if they did make it up the stairs, because for them, the result of them going up the stairs is the punishment itself; not what’s at the top of the stairs. Humans, however, can communicate verbally. If one wanted to test if what the group said was true, they’d go up there, punishment or not. It’d then be up to the controllers of the experiment to confirm or deny what the group thinks.

    • punchingmonkey

      You don’t seem to fully comprehend the dynamics of the evolving “punishers”. The controllers of the experiment perform the initial cold water punishment just to get the program up and running, and to motivate the monkeys to group attack any single monkey that thinks selfishly/individually. When a clueless new monkey is introduced and quickly smacked around by his cage-mates for going towards the stairs, that cause/effect act speaks much more than words can ever communicate. This new monkey will carry on the tradition because 1. he remembers his own beating well, and as violence begets violence, is compelled to smack the next new monkey. 2. All the other monkeys are doing it. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. 3. Group Think patterns.

      Whether or not monkeys are stupid animals that can’t communicate intelligently with words, has very little to do with what this experiment portrays.

  • Trey

    If nothing else, a modern-day parable.

  • Agentsmith

    This point is that the religious CANNOT test what was preached to them. Jesus performed miracles? God answers specific prayers? God created the world and it is only 6000 years old? Jesus resurrected? God love us? How can one test these central claims of Christianity? If a religious claim can be tested, then it wouldn’t require faith to follow it, it wouldn’t be a religion anymore. Faith is to believe in something without evidence or despite mountains of evidence points to the contrary.

    Religious people, for the most part, believe what they believe bacause their parents and family believed it and their parents’ parents and so on… all the way to the original monkeys, I mean true believers.

  • J. Allen

    verbal communication is just physical communication by other means.

    The problem is they can’t even test the banana because the others prevent them from doing so. Even with verbal communication what would the new monkey say “I want that banana” and they reply: “No, that banana is forbidden, we will be hurt if you do eat it, otherwise I would have eaten it when I arrived.”

    An interesting extension of the test would be to have a second cage in view of the monkeys where there was no punishment for bananas…would the monkeys eventually lose faith in their system if other monkeys were shown to be not punished for the same behavior?

  • Liudvikas

    OMG, that is brilliant. I am totally stealing this.

    Now fetch me some monkeys.

  • Francesc

    I need to check it, but I think that test was done, it was a real test to prove that monkeys -chimps?- can have tabus

    • Kodie

      “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys” Stephenson

      I found this cited finally after looking things up but not able to find the text. It’s cited in a lot of other behavioral studies.

      Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior:
      A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates
      by Bennett C. Galef, Jr.

      is another given source of the story, I skimmed it over, it might have been something like that in there.

  • smittypap

    First thing this made me think of was the health care debate. Progressives are trying desperately to climb the stairs for their public option banana while rethuglicans keep knocking them down.

    • Kodie

      I looked it up online and there are dozens of uses for this anecdote/fable over the last decade or so. Some use it for how company policy begins, laws, religion, academics. “That’s the way it’s always been done” even though nobody knows exactly why applies to a lot of categories with respect to human behavior and social functioning.

  • Measure

    I don’t know the veracity of the story, but I heard it from a friend in 1996. So it’s at least that old.

  • CybrgnX

    I see this activity everywhere. Try to be the new guy and ask ‘WHY???” and you will get all types of justifications and try to ignore or change the policies and see where that gets you. Whether this story is a true experiment or not, I see it happening a lot.
    Our verbal abilities just makes it more effecient and able to spread faster….
    “gOd never meant for us to do that!!!!” ‘Do not eat of the fruit of the TREE’ and other such BS.

  • LRA

    It’s at least an example of conditioning (a form of learning).

  • http://www.multiplaying.net Slurms

    Funny part?

    We can use this as a metaphor against theists who hate being called monkeys…

    viva la evolution!

  • phrankygee

    This “parable” is the best part of the movie “The Contender”, starring Joan Allen and (I think) Jeff Bridges.

    The scene is actually not even in the movie, I think, but in the “special features” on the DVD.

    It is used in a political, not religious context, but the delivery is pretty awesome.

  • http://stuart-randomthoughts.blogspot.com/ Stuart Resnick

    Following habit or precedent, doing things the way other people do them, or the way they’ve always been done… is an excellent DEFAULT strategy. That is, it’s a good fall-back strategy to use when absolutely no other information is available, or when you must act immediately, giving you no time to consider things cirtically.

    That’s why this type of strategy is hard-wired into our DNA. The instructions in our DNA must be really basic… after all, these instructions must be capable of keeping us alive in those critical first minutes/days/years of our lives. What strategy is so simple that even a new-born baby can use it? “Copy what others are doing.”

    However, it’s far far from perfect. When we DO have a little information, when we DO have time to consider this information with care… it results in much much more efficient decisions than following tradition, authorities, or crowds.

  • Jon

    Of course some true believers will simply interpret this story as just more validation of their beliefs (i.e. the first hand experience of cold water represents the first hand experience of the resurrected Christ) etc. etc. etc.

  • Ben Finney

    > The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

    So, the claim here is that a member with no rational reason to want someone punished (since the member was never themselves the subject of spraying with cold water) nevertheless takes part in that punishment of a newcomer.

    For me, that’s the crucial — and fascinating — part of this story. I would love to know whether this is the actual behaviour observed when this experiment is performed, and whether the behaviour differs significantly among different monkey or ape species.