Monkey Business: Did you ever get soaked, while trying to grab a Banana?

In 1967 G. R. Stephenson conducted an experiment with a group of rhesus monkeys. The experiment shows how we acquire behavior. I think studying the way the experiment was conduced shows something else: It shows that monkeys would never have acted the way they did, if they had been left alone to live their life in peace. I believe the natural state of monkeys and humans is to be good. It’s the experiments, which drive us crazy.

The experiment went like this:

Five monkeys are placed in a cage. Attached to its roof, out of reach of the monkeys, a couple of juicy, ripe bananas. The professor then places a ladder in the middle of the cage. Immediately one of the monkeys starts climbing up, looking forward to savor this healthy snack. Just before reaching the bananas the professor sprays ALL the monkeys with ice-cold water, soaking the animals to the bones. He repeats the procedure several times, until the shivering monkeys accept that trying to get to the bananas will result in a rather unpleasant shower.

The professor then replaces one of the monkeys with a new, inexperienced one. As expected, the new monkey spots the bananas and goes for the ladder. But this time the other four monkeys stop the courageous one and give him a beating. The group enforces the rule it has learned: “No one climbs the ladder, or we ALL will be sprayed with ice water!”

The professor then proceeds by replacing the experienced monkeys, one by one until none of the original monkeys remain in the cage.

As you might have already guessed even this “inexperienced” group of monkeys will continue to enforce the rule to not climb the ladder. Somehow the group feels compelled to enforce the acquired behavior. If asked why one should not climb the ladder the monkeys might answer: “I don’t know why I do this, but this is the way things are done around here!”

Ever got a similar response at work, when you suggested doing things differently? “I agree, in an ideal world it would make sense to do things differently”. Followed by: “But this is a professional company, following state of the art processes. I’m sorry, THIS is how things are done in a business environment!”

In Buddhism one of the explanations how humans tend to create their own suffering is to follow a wrong perception, an illusion. By behaving in a way that seems to be socially accepted, but deep in our heart we know to be wrong, we participate in keeping these illusions alive.

Illusions are so strong because they are rooted in our ego. My first reaction will always be to stop anything negative from happening to myself. But the problem is that by protecting myself, I am actually keeping the illusion alive.

And Illusions are deceitful too. If someone tells you: “This is the way things are done around here!” telling him, “NO, THIS is the way things are done around here!” you are just replacing one person’s illusions with your own. Your illusions might work temporarily and improve things at work. But you have to be careful not to start your own experiment.

So how can we stop an illusion at work from hurting us?

The first step is not to see our office as a cage. Believing the office to be a cage will ultimately influence our behavior. If things get ugly I try to think of the office as a hunting ground to gather food. Hunting for food is not always fun, but I’m not in a cage.

Be compassionate towards your colleagues. Next time everyone is sitting shivering on the ground, wrap a warm blanket around the colleague next to you. This action alone is so powerful, that many others might stop chasing illusions and start caring about each other.

Resist the impulse to stop the next colleague who wants to climb the ladder to get to the bananas. Instead look around, trying to learn how the system works. You will get wet, but your understanding about the illusions at work will grow.

Talk to the people you think are running the experiment. Try to challenge them, understand them. One day they will realize that they where following an illusion and hopefully conclude: “This is really crazy! I finally realize that I was chasing an illusion all the time. It’s time to stop experimenting and start working and living together.”



  1. You are right about the limits of artificial experiments. All animals follow patterns, and they learn as well as teach each other the good patterns. All animals have intelligence so they could be working at getting the fruit by a different method, as well as attacking the problem of eliminating the source of cold water. Nature has greater complexity than the limits of the lab.

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  4. And we should not merely unveil the illusion of conditioning through punishment. Our most insiduous unnatural conditioning is achieved through reward. It is when we are made to feel happiest that we are probably the least free.

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