I received the following in an email this afternoon:

The story ends with a political comment that has no bearing on my question.

Put simply, would monkeys (or any other animal really act this way? I understand how a monkey could be conditioned through direct action. Reach for the banana and get doused with cold water. However, in this scenario, the four other monkeys get the negative reinforcement based on the action of a monkey that gets positive reinforcement (he gets the banana). Each monkey decides to prevent one of their number from reaching for the banana so that they do not get doused. To me, that is a pretty huge leap for a monkey to make. He has to understand that when someone else does “X”, then something bad happens to him. Can a monkey really make such an indirect connection? I’m not sure that even humans would easily make that connection. My thought is that if everyone except the monkey going for the banana gets doused, then I want to be the one getting the banana. That guy gets the banana and stays dry. Win-win.

I think that this experiment assumes that the monkeys are not starving and that the banana does not represent a desperation move that will be made no matter what the cost.

What type of monkeys are we talking about? Different monkeys have different social structures and hierarchy. For example, a group of monkeys with a very strong social hierarchy, the alpha male might simply take the banana and not care what happens to the others.

It sounds like a made up experiment to make a political point.

Wiki to the rescue.

The OP’s story isn’t about the hundredth monkey effect. It’s about monkeys learning to regulate behavior that will have negative consequences even though none of those monkeys themselves have experienced the negative consequences.

Link dump.

I was looking into something and had these bookmarked,So…
… to the rescue?

To sum it up… They are to some extend capable of empathy, and exhibit a form of theory of mind… the basic learning strategy is similar to humans, the methods of social control are effective… apes have pretty well formed understanding of altruistic punishment. The answer is “possibly”; apes, sure thing at least for a while. Some monkeys… perhaps (macaques are a top contender there). They’ll also bound to stop doing it sooner or later if there’s no reinforcement, first monkey to forget the rule when others aren’t paying attention will break the system down. Or the first hungry one… or just the fastest…


I’m working directly with macaques, so I can answer this question in macaques species.

Absolutely. For bad things or for good things just as well. If a caretaker walk towards the banana storage next to the monkey cage, you can be sure that the monkeys know what’s coming (and get quite excited). Macaques have a lot of social interactions: if some peanut is thrown in the cage and the alpha monkey (i.e. the dominant one) is in the vicinity and looks interested, the beta and gamma won’t dare touch it. Well, the beta may go for it and then ruuuuuun before getting kicked.

Suppose that I put you in a cage with a banana or bottle of beer or whatever you find attractive, and then every time you try to go for it I touch a button and you get an electric shock. I assure you that you will get the point very quickly.

Then you better be the super-super alpha guy, because even as a human, I can tell you that you don’t want to be in a cage together with four freaked-out water-doused macaques.

You are totally right to point out the difference between macaques and apes.

My bet (with macaques) is that some new strong and dominant monkey comes in the cage, takes the alpha position, goes for the banana and when the others protest he beats the crap out of them. The other monkeys who, indeed, have no real motivation for preventing the alpha form getting the banana, will quickly forget the rule “don’t touch the banana” and go back to the ancestral rule “don’t piss the boss when he wants the banana”.

Back to the email in the OP: I’m quite confident that this behavior can be taught, but only a reference to an actual scientific study could corroborate the notion that it can remain stable for a long time.

I’ve only skimmed the thread and didn’t read your whole post, but I’m making this my new life motto.

This link claims that the experiment described in the OP never happened exactly, although there are vaguely similar experiments:

I’m sure I would. But would a monkey get the point that, if he goes for the banana, someone else gets the shock. Why would he care?

Because when the someone else gets the shock, they beat him up.

I can see the monkeys who are getting sprayed associating stair climbing with an unpleasant experience and beating up any monkey who tried it. And I can see monkeys who get beat up for attemting to climb the stairs learning not to try that.

So the criticial point is whether monkeys who were never sprayed would join in on beating up monkeys who are attempting to climb the stairs. These unsprayed monkeys have no reason to associate any unpleasant experience with another monkey climbing the stairs. The issue seems to be whether monkeys will beat up on another monkey just because the crowd is doing it or do they need a personal incentive for joining in.

It seems reasonably clear that no such experiment ever happened, although it vaguely resembles some real ones. This story seems to be mostly told by managment consultants to prove some sort of point, and I don’t trust management consultants any further than I can throw them.

Just out of curiosity… how far could you throw a 207 pound management consultant?

I can’t even pick one up.

Ah, my banana/beer bottle example was out of the point indeed.

I’m pretty sure that the monkey would get the point that when someone else goes for the banana, he gets doused. See the caretaker heading for the banana storage example. A macaque can recognize someone else’s action (e.g. heading towards a specific item) an associate it with a short-term outcome.

For me, the real clue was contained in your first sentence:

I’m afraid that means that nothing that follows will be true. It may look logical, it may be full of names of scientists and dates of experiments, it may have quotes from prominent politicians or celebrities… but if you researched it, you would find that the entire thing had been twisted or just made up. All to make that “unrelated political point” you referenced.

I do apologize. I think you somehow got on my mom’s email list. Retired right-wing upper-class women, who are ready to believe anything that supports their very narrow viewpoints and can’t wait to pass it along to a hundred people that are merely related to an old high school friend should never have been given the power to forward emails.

I’m sure you’re right about that. I really didn’t think that the email was reporting a legitimate scientific experiment. The political point was that we should vote out all incumbent congress members. As such, I thought that the monkey story didn’t really apply all that well. I was just curious if monkeys could even make the leaps in reasoning that the story illustrates. It has seemed doubtful to me that monkeys behave that way, though some folks here with actual monkey experience say that it is possible.

Ah, thereby guaranteeing that none of them remember the cold water, and that all of them would just assume that “it’s always been done this way”, without knowing the reasons for anything. Makes perfect sense!

I think that the story has different meanings depending on who tells it. When management consultants tell it in their expensive seminars, it means that they are going to introduce an idea that doesn’t make much obvious sense. By telling the monkey story, they imply that if there is widespread objection to the new idea in the company that they are giving the seminar to, that simply means that the employees are just like the monkeys. They have objections for no rational reason and discourage new ideas without thinking about them. Therefore the company should ignore the employees’ objections and impose the policy on the company that the consultant’s new idea must henceforth be used.

The problem with this attitude is not that every idea that management consultants come up with is wrong. Some are indeed good ideas, but there’s an awful lot of bad ones too. The problem is not that sometimes employees object to good ideas without thinking about them. That certainly happens. The problem is not that good ideas are sometimes counterintuitive. Some are, and they take a while to get used to. The problem is that by telling this story the management consultant is badgering the company and its employees. They are saying, “If you object to any of my ideas, you can’t be doing it for a rational reason. You must be doing it because you’re no smarter than the monkeys in this story. You have to accept my ideas without objections.”

Exactly. That first group of monkeys had a sound reason for preventing any monkey from climbing the stairs.

It’s a good idea to periodically ask why something is being done and decide whether it still needs to be done. But it’s a bad idea to assume that if you don’t know the reason for doing something then it must not be important.