An Amazing Story You Won’t Believe


Most people don’t have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims.  – Carlos Santana

Last week I heard the most amazing behavioral science story. I goes like this:

Several years ago researchers working with monkeys confined five into a single enclosure. Each day they placed a banana at the top of a ladder. The monkey who first climbed and attempted to retrieve the banana was sprayed with cold water. And then the rest of the monkeys were also sprayed with cold water. Miserable.

After a few days, the monkeys started grabbing, holding and biting the monkey who attempted to get the banana, because of course everyone else would get doused with cold water. Pretty soon no one attempted to get the banana. They learned that they would get both sprayed with cold water, and attacked by their peers if they tried to climb the ladder. Both miserable outcomes.

Then one day the researchers removed one of the monkeys and brought in a new monkey. The very next day the new monkey raced to get the banana but was immediately set upon and attacked by the other monkeys who refused to allow him to reach the banana. WTF? What’s wrong with you monkeys?

After several days of repeatedly being held back, finally the new monkey succumbed to the culture and stopped trying to reach the banana each day.

Over time the researchers would remove one of the older monkeys and introduce a new one. And each time the new monkey was taught by his peers not to go for the banana. Until finally, all of the original monkeys had been rotated out and only newer monkeys, trained by their peers, remained in the cage.

And still no monkey attempted to get the banana each day. Yet no monkey in the cage had ever had the experience of being doused with cold water. There was no monkey in the enclosure who could ever explain or understand WHY nobody tried to get the banana. They all complied with this “rule” that had no logical origin.

The story is amazing, a poignant metaphor for our everyday lives. Immediately I started looking for the original study to read it, and write about it. It has fascinating implications for us, our teams, our workplaces, and our inability to question why we participate in the habits and rituals we do every day without even questioning them.

Here’s the thing. The story isn’t true. The experiment never existed. The study never happened. It was originally described in a business book twenty years ago, and repeated over and over by many others. I was disappointed but not surprised. The story is so plausible and compelling it begs to be told.

Like the banana story, we can easily get trapped into repetitive behaviors without ever asking why we do what we do. But like the banana story itself, we can sometimes find stories so compelling that they become folklore and repeated over and over until they become gospel truth without anyone ever questioning the origin.

Often we believe that if we try something new – attempt a novel experiment at work to improve a process or develop a new product – we will be met with rejection by our bosses and peers. So we stop trying.

Try something new today. Go out on a limb. Smash a barrier. Break taboo.