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COLUMN: Five monkeys - a classic tale of peer pressure

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By James Calvert

This week’s column involves a banana, a ladder, a cage full of monkeys, and a psychologist with a fire hose, with overtones of social parody. I'm not referring to the most recent episode of Family Guy, but rather, a psychological study that is rumored to have taken place in the late 1960s.

The story, whether fact or fiction, goes something like this: Psychologists observed five (rhesus) monkeys in a large cage, with a ladder in the center. A banana was placed on top of the ladder. One of the five monkeys naturally tried to climb the ladder to get the tasty fruit at the top, but the unsuspecting monkey, along with the four others in the cage, were sprayed with a powerful fire hose by an observing psychologist. The lesson was clear: climb the ladder, and you and all of your monkey-friends will be sprayed.

Another monkey tried to climb the ladder but he was reprimanded with a blast from the fire hose and so were the other four monkeys in the cage. The rules of the game were well defined; if any monkey climbed the ladder in order to get the fruit, all monkeys would be punished.

The psychologists removed one of the monkeys from the cage and replaced it with a new monkey that knew nothing of the fire hose punishment. Naturally, the monkey tried to climb the ladder in the center of the cage to get the banana, but the other monkeys demonstrated hostility toward the new monkey. They beat up the new monkey and prevented him from climbing the ladder because they knew the drill – if any of the monkeys climbed the ladder, all of the monkeys would be punished.

Psychologists replaced a second monkey in the group with a new monkey that knew nothing of the fire hose and the same thing happened- the new monkey tried to climb the ladder and the other monkeys- along with the monkey that had been recently introduced- beat up the monkey.

Psychologists conducting the study replaced each monkey until the original five monkeys had been replaced. None of the new generation monkeys in the cage knew anything of the fire hose, but they continued to beat up any monkey that decided to take a chance at climbing the ladder to get the fruit at the top.

The point of this parable is quite clear – people are susceptible to the pressures of others, which can create a mob mentality, at least in the case of the five monkeys.

“Because that’s the way we do things,” becomes an acceptable explanation for keeping the status quo, whether in politics or other institutions that are driven from the top-down.

No innovation occurs in such an environment in which people are discouraged from questioning the order of operations.

The story of the five monkeys is perhaps an urban legend, but it is based on another study that was performed by a psychologist named “Stephenson,” in 1967, in which a trained monkey pulled another monkey away from interacting with an object that had resulted in an electric shock to all of the monkeys in its cage.

The story of the five monkeys, despite its suspect authenticity, was forwarded to me recently in a chain email and the story is a popular search topic on the Internet.

James Calvert is a reporter for The Kentucky Standard.