The Lesson of the Monkeys

I was first told of this experiment* by a former work colleague, and later discovered this illustration of it. It’s both illuminating and disturbing.

There is a clunky word that describes this phenomenon: filiopietism, or the reverence of forebears or tradition carried to excess. But I prefer another term for it: the tragic circle. I believe many of these tragic circles exist, mostly unseen, in across all cultures and societites, causing untold harm. When discovered, they should be terminated.

The lesson is as obvious as it is important: question everything. Dare to be skeptical. Think of all the age-old idiocy and insanity waiting to be exposed.


* 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.

23 thoughts on “The Lesson of the Monkeys

  1. I don’t know why, but I feel so stupid after reading this. I am one the monkeys that scold, judge, denounce, denigrate, deride, and beat-up the other monkeys to get in line with traditions. Anti-conformity, is truly NOT possible– we all have to tow the line in some significant way!!! Even if it is ONLY a small amount of time out of our lives!! This is not a reason for being an ass– but it is a reason that is true for most (if not ALL) of us.

  2. @Jason Wells
    Not really. What is described here is not the experiment from the cited paper. (A simple net search will lead you to an on-line source.)

    Still, it’s an interesting story and illustrates a point many (most?) organizations could learn from.

  3. G.K Chesterton once said that not knowing why a fence would be there was a very strange reason to tear it down. In the same vein, this seems like a very strange story to tell in favour of the moral “question everything” – surely the glaring fact of the matter in the example you chose to give is that there was a very good reason why the monkeys did not climb the ladder, despite that information having been unfortunately lost.

    I think that I could with more justification ascribe the opposite moral – it’s all very well to scoff at tradition and laugh when no one can tell you why it’s there – but when you break it, don’t be surprised when everyone gets a cold shower.

    I’m not being combative or contrary, I’m just pointing out that this thing goes both ways. More often than not, these silly traditions have some purposeful origin. Trying to figure it out or ascribing different psychological or material uses to its inception is one thing – climbing the ladder just because you don’t know the reason people don’t is quite another.

  4. @Jim The questioning is justified by the harm and lack of benefit. It would be reasonable (and wise) to tear down a fence that no one knew why it was there but was electrocuting people. The fact that there may be some unknown explanation for why the fence was built and electrified in the first place doesn’t have any bearing… especially in the case of the monkeys here, who never knew why they got soaked.

  5. but the real question should be: “how to explain to many angry monkeys that, maybe, jumping all together at the same time on the ladder we can all be satisfied?!”

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  7. The reason we have evolved to do this is illustrated by stories that came out of the tsunami several years ago from the Banda Ace earthquake (the one that devastated Phuket in Thailand). There were several stories of animals (and in some cases village elders) who, when the waters receded on the beach, retreated to high ground. The question we have to face is whether our knowledge has progressed sufficiently to determine whether there is a real reason for following traditional responses or whether the reason no longer applies. It’s unfortunately not necessarily a simple question. I personally believe in questioning everything, but with a bit of hubris thrown in.

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