Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

The Monkey Story

The experiment involved 5 monkeys, a cage, a banana, a ladder and, crucially, a water hose.

The 5 monkeys would be locked in a cage, after which a banana was hung from the ceiling with, fortunately for the monkeys (or so it seemed…), a ladder placed right underneath it.

Of course, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, intending to climb it and grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the sadist (euphemistically called “scientist”) would spray the monkey with ice-cold water. In addition, however, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

When a second monkey was about to climb the ladder, the sadist would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, and apply the same treatment to its four fellow inmates; likewise for the third climber and, if they were particularly persistent (or dumb), the fourth one. Then they would have learned their lesson: they were not going to climb the ladder again – banana or no banana.

In order to gain further pleasure or, I guess, prolong the experiment, the sadist outside the cage would then replace one of the monkeys with a new one. As can be expected, the new guy would spot the banana, think “why don’t these idiots go get it?!” and start climbing the ladder. Then, however, it got interesting: the other four monkeys, familiar with the cold-water treatment, would run towards the new guy – and beat him up. The new guy, blissfully unaware of the cold-water history, would get the message: no climbing up the ladder in this cage – banana or no banana.

When the beast outside the cage would replace a second monkey with a new one, the events would repeat themselves – monkey runs towards the ladder; other monkeys beat him up; new monkey does not attempt to climb again – with one notable detail: the first new monkey, who had never received the cold-water treatment himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would, with equal vigour and enthusiasm, join in the beating of the new guy on the block.

When the researcher replaced a third monkey, the same thing happened; likewise for the fourth until, eventually, all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the ones in the cage had any experience or knowledge of the cold-water treatment.

Then, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. Yet, this monkey turned around and asked “why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?” The other four monkeys stopped, looked at each other slightly puzzled and, finally, shrugged their shoulders: “Don’t know. But that’s the way we do things around here”…

I got this story from my colleague, the illustrious Costas Markides. It reminded him – and me – of quite a few of the organisations we have seen. Over the years, all firms develop routines, habits and practices, which we call the firm’s “organisational culture”. As I am sure you know, these cultures can be remarkably different, in terms of what sort of behaviour they value and what they don’t like to see, and what they punish. Always, these habits and conventions have been developed over the course of many years. Very often, nobody actually remembers why they were started in the first place… Quite possibly, the guy with the water hose has long gone.

Don’t just beat up the new monkey – whether it is a new employee, a recent acquisition or a partner; their questioning of “the way we do things round here” may actually be quite a valid one.

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10 Comments for “The Monkey Story”

  • Anonymous says:

    very interesting blog and does exist in lots of organizations…

    But how about the society? Many traditions from the society seems to carry a lot more wisdom

  • J says:

    So true: I know a US company which considers it an contractual breach of terms to exchange salary details with another colleague.

    THe person got this on day one as a graduate trainee and after 10 years still binds himself to this oath.

  • Anonymous says:

    I like monkeys.

  • Anonymous says:

    Funny, up until the penultimate paragraph I thought, clearly this is an allegory of minority cultures (with the scientist/sadist being the dominant culture) in society. But, yeah, I can see the corporate thing, too.

  • Anonymous says:

    Someone already noticed that more suitable application would be tyranny of majority, so to speak.
    Along those lines, I would say this mirrors our overall society, where tacit media control is played out. I watched a journey through Iran story on Channel 13 (PBS TV). The story was very neutral, as if it was made by a disinterested party. Say tomorrow the Administration makes a decision to bomb Iran. Day after tomorrow ALL MAJOR station would start broadcasting interviews about oppression, religious nuts in Iran. All of a sudden heart breaking personal stories about “ethnic cleansing” of Kurdish minority in Iran would be splashed all over our screens. Some analysts would place Osama Bin Ladin, or at least Al Zawahry, Osama’s deputy, in Teheran. Scientists would be interviewed every day on CNN – we would learn that Iran has months, not years/decades to send ready nukes toward Israel and our bases in Iraq etc etc. In the case of Iran, I would probably join that sudden indoctrination/ brain-washing that has always preceded each unilateral military action. At the end most of the population would join in, not having a clue really – WHY!

  • Psychologist Frank Lyngholm says:

    These "news" have longed to be confirmed since Jung posted his theory of "the Collective Unconscious". Although this isn't exactly how he defined the term, the idea is pretty much the same – past human experiences are store in the Collective Unconscious. And generation after generation is unconciously "guided" by past experiences that are unconcious in the present individual.

    In our daily work (developing CEO's empathic skills) we often encounter organizational cultures marked by long past traumatic experiences that become concious for some during the therapeutic process. Our view is that uncertainty and insecurity often have their origin in such collective unconcious traumas.

  • cheezilla says:

    Do the beatings continue because of conditioning OR because the monkeys find a source of power (sadistic pleasure) in the beatings? They have very few options as their captors have all the control. A similar human example: do prisoners wage violent gang war due to conditioned prison culture, or because they are dis-empowered?

  • tshirt kan says:

    great article !
    Thx for posting it

  • Anonymous says:

    While I appreciate this is a useful parable to help explain the importance of change management, I find it very difficult to believe this was a real experiment.

    Chimpanzee's do not learn by copying each other, this is a uniqely human trait. Tomasello has conducted scientific studies which show that Chimpanzees learning is emulative rather than imitative, ie they do not learn by copying by try to solve problems for themselves.

    Therefore, I find this story very unlikely, and the idea of chimps teaching each other not to go for bananas, to be high implausible.

    I would be very grateful if anyone has any idea is the Monkey Story is actually a true story, based on an experiment. Or alternatively, if it was made up by a management coach, to illustrate a point about the organisational culture.

    Thanks very much



  • Anonymous says:

    that ted talk is very interesting
    i didnt know chimps even had theory of mind!

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