Feb 012008

There’s a fairly famous story of five monkeys. I’ll just repeat it here:

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 round here.

And that, my friends, is how company policies are made.

Source for this version.

I’ve heard various versions of this, sometimes with the crack about company policy and sometimes without. I haven’t been able to discover the source of this particular story, either.

The interesting bit, for me, has always been that new monkeys will still stop another new monkey even though they have no idea why. That always made me think about how other people sometimes try to talk you out of doing things they wouldn’t do, and perceive as risky without having ever done them or experienced them. It really does seem like a multi-generation thing. “Its just the way things are done.” And it sometimes things get so bad that an alternative is simply inconceivable. “Everybody in my family’s a doctor.” It reminds me of the story of the woman who always cut the ends off the turkey before roasting it.

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