Sunday, April 29, 2012

The five monkeys, the banana, and the water spray

Does any one knows the origin of the tale about the five monkeys on a torture cage? It´s all over in many languages almost verbatim indicating an specific source. This experiment involved 5 monkeys (10 altogether, including replacements), a cage, a banana, a ladder and, an ice cold water hose.

The canonical story is as follows:

Start with a cage with five monkeys whose natural food is bananas. 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 climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs spray all the monkeys with cold water.

After a while another monkey will make another attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. This continues until pretty soon whenever a monkey tries to climb the stairs all the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

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

Now remove another of the five original monkeys and replace it with another new one. The first newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Continue replacing the monkeys until none of the original monkeys remain. Every time a new monkey takes to the stairs to get the banana all the other monkeys attack him. The monkeys have no idea why they are not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

None of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try to get the banana.

Why not? Because it is, as far as they know, the way it has always been done around here!

The story is compelling because it reflects a common reality. When an organization starts, rules are made to cope with the current situation. Situation changes and people come and go, but as the organization matures, the initial rules, that were successful enough to allow the organization to get to its present state, might or might not apply to current reality. Nevertheless, they are entrenched in the organization's culture and strictly enforced even though none is left that understand the rational of the rules. Actually, the magical quality makes the rules more sacred and unchallengeable.

A similar story is "The Guru's Cat" from The Song of the Bird by Anthony De Mello and popularized by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Eat, Pray, Love.

Every evening when the guru sat down to worship, a street cat considered himself a welcome participant. But the cat was there to make friends, and his commotion distracted the worshipers. The guru ordered that the cat be tethered to a pole outside the front door during evening worship. After the guru died, the disciples continued to tie the cat to the pole.

This ritual became a habit -the customary routine for everyone at the ashram -. First, tie the cat to the pole, and then proceed into the temple to meditate on God. After several years, the habit hardened into a religious ritual, becoming an integral part of their devotional practice. Then one day the cat dies. How is it possible to meditate now, without a cat to tie to a pole?

The Monkey Banana and Water Spray Experiment is ironically a urban legend  although there are some references to an actual 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.

Mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88:

"Stephenson (1967) trained adult male and female rhesus monkeys to avoid manipulating an object and then placed individual naïve animals in a cage with a trained individual of the same age and sex and the object in question. In one case, a trained male actually pulled his naïve partner away from the previously punished manipulandum during their period of interaction, whereas the other two trained males exhibited what were described as "threat facial expressions while in a fear posture" when a naïve animal approached the manipulandum. When placed alone in the cage with the novel object, naïve males that had been paired with trained males showed greatly reduced manipulation of the training object in comparison with controls. Unfortunately, training and testing were not carried out using a discrimination procedure so the nature of the transmitted information cannot be determined, but the data are of considerable interest."

People have searched unsuccessfully for the true source of the research. The 5 monkeys experiment is widely cited; however, no source is ever given. The experiment is sometimes misattributed to Harry Harlow, who did indeed perform controversial studies on monkeys.

The pit of despair was a name used by American comparative psychologist Harry Harlow for a device he designed, technically called a vertical chamber apparatus, that he used in experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the 1970s.[1] The aim of the research was to produce an animal model of clinical depression. Researcher Stephen Suomi described the device as "little more than a stainless-steel trough with sides that sloped to a rounded bottom":
A 3/8 in. wire mesh floor 1 in. above the bottom of the chamber allowed waste material to drop through the drain and out of holes drilled in the stainless-steel. The chamber was equipped with a food box and a water-bottle holder, and was covered with a pyramid top [removed in the accompanying photograph], designed to discourage incarcerated subjects from hanging from the upper part of the chamber. [2]
Harlow had already placed newly born monkeys in isolation chambers for up to one year. With the pit of despair, he placed monkeys between three months and three years old in the chamber alone, after they had bonded with their mothers, for up to ten weeks.[3] Within a few days, they had stopped moving about and remained huddled in a corner.

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