Done by Stephenson G.R., in 1967, titled “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys You may have read the popular (fictional) story about a psychological experiment that involved monkeys, a ladder and a bunch of bananas. The story was said to have originated with the research.” The story has, also, been told in different fictionalized versions. However, in this article, I will tell the story based on my understanding of it and at the end provoke your thoughts, while I share my thoughts on the lessons we can draw from the story as a community.
In the fictionalized psychological experiment, a psychologist put together eight monkeys in a confined room. Therein was a ladder that led to a ceiling where the psychologist kept a bunch of bananas and strategically made the bananas visible to the monkeys. The monkeys could only get to the bunch of bananas through the ladder. However, the psychologist had a hidden plan – an obstacle in their (monkeys) way – which was unknown to the monkeys.
At the sight of the bananas, one of the monkeys quickly tried to climb the ladder to go and get the bananas. It is, arguably, impossible for a monkey to resist a banana! As soon as the monkey touched the ladder, the psychologist sprayed all the other monkeys with iced water. The iced water angered the other monkeys and as a result, they rushed and prevented the monkey that was climbing the ladder from climbing further. They understood that his attempt to climb the ladder was, rather, the reason they were sprayed with iced water, hence they gave him the worst beating of his life. Thus, any monkey that tried to climb the ladder received from the other monkeys a terrible beating because the other monkeys did not want to be sprayed with the iced water, again.
Subsequently, none of the eight monkeys tried to climb the ladder, but they all stayed and admired the bananas that were up in the ceiling. Then the psychologist decided to remove one of the eight monkeys and replaced him with a new monkey. Upon his arrival, the new monkey was surprised that none of the other monkeys was attempting to climb the ladder to get the bananas. He thought he was smarter than the rest, hence he quickly ran to climb the ladder. But he was shocked that the other monkeys beat the hell out of him. Having learnt his lesson the hard way, he did not attempt to climb the ladder, again. While he was there the psychologist removed a second monkey and replaced him with a new monkey. Just like the previous (new) monkey, the newcomer quickly tried to climb the ladder and he received a terrible beating. This time the other (new) monkey joined the original monkeys to beat the newcomer. Though, he did not know why he participated in the beating, but he enjoyed it, as he was beaten too.
Moreover, the psychologist removed a third monkey. Just like the previous two (new) monkeys, the newcomer tried to climb the ladder and he was beaten up by the other monkeys, including the previous two newcomers. Like the other two (new) monkeys, the newcomer did not know why he was beaten, but he did not attempt to climb the ladder a second time. Thus, in that succession the psychologist removed the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and the final of the original eight monkeys, hence replacing them with new monkeys. Interestingly, every newcomer who had attempted to climb the ladder got beaten by the other monkeys.
Nonetheless, eight new monkeys were left in the room; each had been beaten and also had beaten others without knowing why they were beaten or why they participated in beating others. But quite interestingly, none of them had been sprayed with the iced water. All the monkeys knew was that they tried to climb the ladder and they were beaten by the monkeys that they met. So, to the monkeys, it was just the status quo, and they sustained the status quo without knowing why. Imagine how terribly bad the newcomers would have felt, if they had found out that the reason they denied themselves the opportunity to eat the bananas, which they all desired was because the original monkeys did not like iced water sprayed on them?
At this point, the important question to ask is what lessons can we draw, as a community, from the above narrated story? Though, there are many lessons to be drawn from the fictionalized story on many fronts, however, I will restrict myself to three, and encapsulate them into a tripod of dangers that I think maintaining the status quo poses. Firstly, maintaining the status quo comes with a great danger of incompetence. You may have heard the statement “that’s how we do things here?” To put into leadership context, oftentimes, that statement is used to reinforce the status quo, hence to suggest that there is no room for change. Thus, when there is no room for change, creativity is stifled, hence incompetence becomes a liability to leadership, and leadership loses its appeal. I am sure that if we asked the (new) monkeys why they beat up their fellow (newcomers) monkeys, when they tried to climb the ladder, their response would not be different from “that’s how we do things here.” We easily get comfortable with the statement “that’s how we do things here,” but we are hesitant to normalize the idea that we can do better than that. Those in leadership positions – within and/or outside our community – need to ask themselves a critical question that centres on the call of leadership. Is your call to a leadership position to maintain the status quo, or to say that the status quo is not good enough, hence it needs to change?
Secondly, maintaining the status quo poses a danger of mediocrity. To put into personal development context, as human beings, we desire great things in life – the reason we have goals and aspirations. Imagine for a second the bananas and the ladder presented in the narrated story above as metaphors for your desires, goals, or aspirations, and the means to achieve them respectively? Oftentimes, we conveniently say “that’s how I do my things,” yet we cannot question why we continue to do things we do, even when there are options to do things differently. In all my imaginations, there is nothing great that comes from doing things the same ways they have been done repeatedly, especially when those ways have proven to be unproductive. So, when we allow the status quo to perdure, mediocrity becomes normalized.
Lastly, maintaining the status quo poses a danger of growth stagnation. To put into collective action context, if life bestows on us the gift to change the status quo, it is incumbent on us to seek for better ways to do things. The essence of life is not to be contented with the status quo, but rather to resolve to always do better, even when everything looks good enough. Maintaining the status quo will only lead us to treading water. As a community, we must assume the responsibility to suggest to our executives better ways to do things. If we, truly, aspire to move the needle, especially in our community, then we should never get comfortable with the status quo. We must recognize that our abilities to make a change – in our lives, families, and community – rely, largely, on our abilities to change the status quo. In other words, real change comes from changing the status quo. And we can make that change with the ideas that we suggest. Let us be encouraged to give our voice to not just the issues that affect our community, but ways to make ICAC better, and not be dissuaded by the statement “that’s how we do things here.”
To conclude, no doubts that leaving behind the attractive dance of maintaining the status quo is not a walk in the park because of the challenges that are associated with questioning the status quo, however, if we imbibe a conscious appreciation that it is through changing the status quo that we can create greatness, then our efforts towards making a difference in our community will worth the candle. Perhaps we should normalize changing the status quo, rather than getting comfortable with it. Rather than normalize the statements “that’s how we do things here,” or “that’s how I do my things,” we should normalize the statements “this is not good enough,” or “we can do better than that,” as they offer better opportunities than the former for learning, improvement, and development. There is always a room to do better!