The Monkey Experiment and Edgar Schein

April 2, 2014.  A reader brought to my attention that the research cited in this post is suspect.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/games-primates-play/201203/what-monkeys-can-teach-us-about-human-behavior-facts-fiction).  After a little digging, it appears that the story originated in a credible business book, “Competing for the Future” by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad.  One writer went so far as to contact Hamel’s office to obtain the actual research cited in the book, and apparently received a brush off.  So while this makes a good story to support theories on organizational culture, perhaps it should merely be taken as that – a good story.  But…I have seen the behavior in 30-some years of corporate work and the message is sound.


One of many “funny” emails floating around the internet contained the story of the monkey, banana and water spray experiment.  I was pretty sure it was true (because I’ve seen it happen – but not with monkeys), but I wanted to source it anyway.

So I went to Wikianswers.com to check it out (see the story below).  Indeed, the experiment took place in 1967 and has been a standard in psychology to explain “mob behavior“.

But let’s take it to the topic of organizational culture. Edgar Schein talks about the “unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings.  The ultimate source of values and action.” (Schein, 2004) This is the part that you see but it is difficult to understand “the why”.  Often, these assumptions conflict with the “artifacts” and “values” that are talked about and written on posters and intranets.

A practical example.  A healthcare organization is exceedingly proud of their strong culture of caring for patients.  Everything from their new employee orientation to their performance management program focus on caring, quality and speaking up when they saw something wrong.

But several years ago, a new nurse just out of orientation publicly corrected a physician and was publicly “flogged”.  That nurse became a mentor to several other nurses, and quickly explained that what they learned in orientation about speaking up was erroneous, and they would actually be subject to discipline if they challenged a physician or a more senior nurse.

Year after year, the unspoken rule is handed down, and the energy and excitement of hearing the values at orientation gives way to cynicism and silence.

Does this really happen?  You betcha!

What do to?  The answer isn’t really difficult, but it takes courage to execute.  The answer lies in asking good questions, observing behavior and understanding what those underlying assumptions are.  And here’s the key….once that is known, leadership has to make change to bring the artifacts and values in line with the assumptions.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it.  So why don’t more organizations do this?

“Did the monkey banana and water spray experiment ever take place?
Answer:

The Monkey Banana and Water Spray Experiment The experiment is real (scientific study cited below). This experiment involved 5 monkeys (10 altogether, including replacements), a cage, a banana, a ladder and, an ice cold water hose.The Experiment- Part 1
5 monkeys are locked in a cage, a banana was hung from the ceiling and a ladder was placed right underneath it.
As predicted, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, to grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the researcher would spray the monkey with ice-cold water.
but here’s the kicker- In addition, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

When a second monkey tried to climb the ladder, the researcher would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, As well as the other four watching monkeys;
This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson
Climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE so No One Climbs the ladder.

The Experiment- Part 2
Once the 5 monkeys knew the drill, the researcher replaced one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. BUT, the other four monkeys, knowing the drill, jumped on the new monkey and beat him up. The beat up new guy thus Learns- NO going for the ladder and No Banana Period- without even knowing why! and also without ever being sprayed with water!

These actions get repeated with 3 more times, with a new monkey each time and ASTONISHINGLY each new monkey- who had never received the cold-water Spray himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would Join the beating up of the New guy.

This is a classic example of Mob Mentality- bystanders and outsiders uninvolved with the fight- join in ‘just because’.

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 original ones are left in the cage (that had been sprayed by water).

The Experiment- Part 3
Again, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. The monkey turns with a curious face asking “why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?”
The other four monkeys stopped and looked at each other puzzled (None of them had been sprayed and so they really had no clue why the new guy can’t get the banana) but it didn’t matter, it was too late, the rules had been set. And So, although they didn’t know WHY, they beat up the monkey just because ” that’s the way we do things around here”…

Well, it seems to be true; not in the exact shape that it took here, but close enough,

Below is a quotation from the experiment, in scientific Jargon: (sources cited below)

“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.”

Sources:
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:”

______________________________________________________

Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, Jossey Bass, pp. 26.

Animated monkey from http://www.animationfactory.com  

13 thoughts on “The Monkey Experiment and Edgar Schein”

  1. Carol, what a great illustration of how a “culture” gets built, for better or worse. As you have, I’ve seen it all too many times – the actions don’t match the words on the wall. Then leaders wonder ‘why aren’t people doing what we want them to do?’ It really is because they have literally learned not to. You recently used the word authenticity and I think that is what so much of it comes down to. Culture is all about what we do, not what we say. If we act inauthentically, it becomes like a parasitic vine, eventually weaving throughout the entire organization and hard to get rid of.

  2. With the new job, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about espoused values and the actual experience. I’m treated as a regular employee (and I will be one in June), but when it comes down to some cultural items, I’m absolutely a contractor and should stay quiet and out of the way.

  3. David, I looked further, and it appears that this experiment may have been originated in “Competing for the Future” by Hamel and Prahalad. This link (http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/6828/was-the-experiment-with-five-monkeys-a-ladder-a-banana-and-a-water-spray-condu)indicates an attempt to trace back the origins of the experiment without success.

    Your point is a good one – to verify the sources of internet research. While it appears that this may have been urban legend perpetuated by “business writers,” the premise of learned culture is valid and has been researched by theoreticians in the world of business, such as Edgar Schein. The “follower” mentality that evolves from cultural norms is exhibited every day in the modern business world, making culture change extremely difficult.

  4. Any chance you could provide some references for the research that has been conducted by theoreticians in the world of business as you note? I think “world of business” is key, not just freshmen Psy/Soc students or rhesus monkeys. Thanks.

  5. I don’t have a copy of Hamel & Prahalad’s book, so I can’t look it up right now. Not sure what you are asking, but sometimes “research” and “world of business” are oxymorons. I did provide reference for Schein….

  6. I commend you for a magnanimous & thoughtful response to a snarky comment, for which I must apologize. The Skeptics link you provided is as informative as any I’ve come across. At this point it would be helpful to view the 1967 paper from G. R. Stephenson to see more details of the original experiment. Because those details have not yet been brought to light, it seems apparent that subsequent authors have elaborated details to fit their rhetorical purposes.

    There are many others transmitting this meme, I among them before I actually looked into it and discovered the lack of substantiation for it. I agree that the story is compelling & rings true; I think most of us have seen this type of behavior not only in corporate culture but in any social system maintained by fear. As a middle school teacher & erstwhile authority figure, I find abundant opportunities to question my decisions – was it the right thing to do, or was I simply playing the sixth monkey? – as I have questioned the use of sarcasm in commenting on your original blog entry.

    The takeaway consideration for me is this: To what extent do I undermine my own credibility when using misinformation to support my argument? I think the answers go back to the author’s original intent and to the manner of the author’s response when confronted with more accurate information. Unlike some writers’ treatment of the anecdote, I feel that you have acquitted your position on both fronts.

    Cheers!

  7. Among the discrepancies between source and elaboration were air blasts instead of showers and novel objects instead of bananas. The experiment from Stephenson’s 1967 paper bears little resemblance to that described in the meme: http://www.scribd.com/doc/106891948/Stephenson-G-R-1967-Cultural-Acquisition-of-a-Specific-Learned-Response-Among-Rhesus-Monkeys-in-Starek-D-Schneider-R-And-Kuhn-H-J-Eds

    Makes one wonder how many other authors try to dress their fiction up in the guise of science.

  8. David, thanks for your recent comments. I also found the original Stephenson article, and skimmed it. One of my most fervid beliefs is that business practitioners of today are being bombarded with “research” and falling prey to trying this, and then that when this didn’t work. The confusion this presents to the workforce can literally tank an organization. I saw that with my own eyes.

    Good lesson learned from all. Trust, but verify. With the wealth of information available in today’s internet, comes responsibility for verifying the content.

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