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Friday, March 23, 2012

The old 'bananas and monkeys' story

I'm pretty sure you've run across this story scores of times, because I have. There's a dozen versions on the web, many unmercifully plagiarised from each other.

Just in case you somehow missed it, I'll reproduce here what I think is the best version of it, though for all I know it could have been derived from one of the ones I've discarded.

I have a reason for mentioning it because it's important to a coming serious discussion that I have in mind about our experiences with brain cancer therapies, and I don't want to have to explain this yarn there.

I'm not the first to ask whether this story has any basis in fact. It smells mightily of urban legend. The great website for sniffing out all sorts of urban myths,, is surprisingly vague about it. I thought they'd be sure to dismiss it summarily as apocryphal, but they didn't.

I did get interested in whether or not this experiment was ever carried out, in any variant form, and there's some basis in fact for it, as you can see at the end if you want to check it out.

(I've excluded the introductory moral of the story bit as it diverts from my intent, but it's there in full on the website.)

That’s The Way It’s Always Been
Post written by Zen Family Habits contributor Corey Allan.

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 of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the 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 away the cold water. 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 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’s the way it’s always been done around here.

(Closing moral excluded, but you can guess it. This tale has been adapted to suit business management as well as family relationships. As you'll see, I have my own purpose, which will be revealed in the fullness of time.)

The footnote:
"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."

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:

I was a bit amused at the intensity of the discussion around this tale, ranging from observations about the effect of the behaviour of the Alpha male of the group on attempts by others to reach the banana, to outrage at the cruelty of spraying water on the monkeys participating in the experiment. Not amusing was the thought that this was a mild experiment compared with some experiments our little monkey brothers and sisters are put through, but let that pass.

In the end, its veracity in simian behavioural studies has little to do with my story. The general point will.


  1. I may be drawing a long bow, but there is a loose linkage here - even if it is only the species selected for the story. Rupert Sheldrake's book - Presence of the Past has influenced my thinking ever since I read it. Loosely and generally, it can be summed up as 'The Hundredth Monkey Syndrome'. Sheldrake, a scientist with a near-mystical bent, seems to have been embraced by mystics and mainly ignored by science. This disturbed me at the time and still does. There are, it seems to me, flows and patterns in life, in the world, which are not related to discernible genetic, behavioural or experiential factors. Have you never been humming a song, switched on the car radio, and that old 70s song is being played? Or witnessed how a critical balance point is reached (maybe only 15%), and the whole 'way things are done around here' changes? At the time I have noted how quite unconnected, long-standing 'norms' coincided ... the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheit, and the recognition of Native Title in Australia. Bearing in mind the length of time these pattern had been in place, the coincidence of such massive changes in such a short period of time was, to me, significant. Has science been too restricted and objective? Are scientists too afraid of ridicule to entertain thoughts 'outside the square'? Might there even be, in fact, a scientific explanation beyond our ken? I certainly don't know, but I am not comfortable with the thought that science has put this type of exploration into the 'too hard' basket.

  2. Thanks for those comments, Bob. I came across the '100th Monkey Syndrome' when I was researching this topic (scantily, I'll admit), so I'm not unfamiliar with it. As it turns out, Wikipedia, the oracle of the age of 'agreed' truth, has a good discussion of the pros and cons of that particular set of observations, and some of the objections raised are fairly compelling.

    That doesn't mean I think it's totally wrong; there are always shades of grey. I will simply say that agreed correctness is not necessarily truth; otherwise the sun would still be revolving around the Centre of the Universe, good old Planet Earth.

    I do know that animal (and therefore human) behaviours defy some 'expert' opinion. One I referred to in the piece above; i.e., the 'expert' statement that this could not possibly happen because only the Alpha male would dare try to eat first. The Alpha male would thrash any other monkey who tried.

    In most cases that would be so, but not all. I saw a fascinating programme once on monkeys in the wild where a young aggressive male fought and killed the Alpha male of the troupe. The females obviously had great affection for the previous dominant male and their behaviour gathering round him and trying to revive him (or hoping for his revival, or mourning him) was quite touching.

    But the point here was that the new Alpha male was very rough with the females in mating and general treatment of them and outright cruel to any young members of the troupe. Led by the matriarchs, the outraged females ganged up on him, and even though he was far stronger than any couple of them together, as a group they beat him to within an inch of his life and cast him out, and he dared not come back.

    The point of this is that if that group of monkeys defied the behaviour that the 'expert' on Alpha males said couldn't happen, then there's no reason why a group of monkeys grouped together in an unnatural environment like a cage wouldn't do the same thing, if they were tired of getting freezing water sprayed on them because of the behaviour of any one of them.

    So we're right not to discard possibilities that look irrational and are panned by 'experts.'

    So says I, expert on nothing.


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