The experiment with the five monkeys


Five monkeys are placed in a cage. From the ceiling of the cage hang bananas that can be reached by using a ladder. As soon as one of the monkeys climbs the ladder to pick a banana, cool water is sprayed all over the other four apes. When the monkeys soon realise the consequence of one of them climbing the ladder, the remaining will immediately and with great force drag down anyone in the group trying to climb the ladder before the cold water is turned on. It will not be long before no one of the monkeys climbs the ladder anymore out of fear of the others.

In the experiment, one of the original monkeys is now taken out of the cage and replaced by a newcomer. The newcomer immediately climbs the ladder to reach the bananas, but is furiously pulled down by the other monkeys. As the new monkey have not experience the cold water it does not know why the others react as they do, but soon adapt and no longer try to climb the ladder.

Another of the original monkeys is now replaced by a new one and everything is repeated. The former newcomer is now actively involved in the violent tearing down of the new monkey, because this is what it has learned from the others.

One after one of the original monkeys are replaced and in the end, none of the five monkeys in the cage have ever experienced the cold water shower, but all react in the same violent way if any of the others try to climb the ladder, without knowing the background to their action.

From this experiment, we can learn something very important about the creative process. In most situations where people work together, there are a number of unwritten rules for what one can and cannot do. Often nobody really knows why, but the newcomer at a workplace quickly learns that “This is the way we have always done it”.

To question and attempt to change existing routines will in most workplaces lead to resistance from the other employees who are used to and secure with the existing working methods. Even the management can have a built-in reluctance to change, unless it is initiated from the top, and this regardless of the official exclamations of being a creative organisation. The boss then becomes alike the scientist outside the cage who splashes cold water on the monkeys. To continue to propose changes in such a situation requires a courage that most people do not have.

This one sentence, “This is the way we have always done it”, is therefore one of the greatest known creativity killers. All new thinking and ideas are based on questioning current habits and finding new, untested ways that could work better. Supporting, instead of opposing such thinking, is one of the most important roles for the creative leader.

The story of the five monkeys, which is a commonly used metaphor on how easily an organisation gets stuck in old wheel tracks based, is on a true experiment.

Stephenson G R (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology. Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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