by Marsha Hughes-Rease
Although this experiment is attributed to Harry Harlow, a social psychologist, it is impossible to find the original research. But, since I am into metaphorical thinking, it suits my needs to explain what is often seen in organizations when the question is asked “why are you doing this?”
In the alleged research study, five monkeys were placed in a cage with stairs leading to a ripe banana. One monkey climbs the stairs to retrieve the banana, but hidden at the top of the stairs was a water spray which showered water over the monkey. So it abandoned the attempt. Another monkey tried; it too was sprayed with water. Each monkey in turn tried, but each was doused and eventually gave up. The researchers turned off the water spray and removed one monkey from the cage, replacing it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and immediately tried to climb the stairs. However, to its horror, the other monkeys leapt up and stopped it.
Over time the researchers removed and replaced all the original monkeys. However, every time a newcomer approached the ladder, the other monkeys stopped it from climbing up. None of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed, but still no monkey approached the ladder to reach the bananas. As far as they knew, that was the way it had always been done, and so the habit was formed.
Of course, humans are so much more complex than our distant cousin but our behavior is sometimes predictable when it comes to problem solving. And why is this. It is partially related to the influence of group culture. Edgar Schein, a renowned social scientist, offers a formal definition of group culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” In subgroups in organizations, the shared assumptions may be questioned by newcomers as they are trying to “get the banana”. However, because the old members in the group may not even remember why they are doing what they do, their response may be like the monkeys…they chastise the new member. After a while, the new member forms the same habits as the other group members and the status quo is preserved.
Preservation of the status quo is fine unless it interferes with how adaptive the group is. If the same group of people always sit together in the cafeteria, no big deal! On the other hand, if this group fails to examine its own norm of denying group members the opportunity to share different perspectives or views during problem solving, this may be reinforcing a status quo that is not benefitting the group members or the organization. It is a lost opportunity for exploring new possibilities, learning, and innovative thinking.
The surfacing and examination of assumptions supporting unacceptable behavior related to cultural conditioning is not for the weak or uncourageous. It requires the a little preparation including asking yourself some hard questions like:
- What difference will it make if I do challenge the status quo?
- What are my intentions for challenging the status quo?
- What outcomes do I expect?
- What capabilities do I need to challenge the status quo?
- Am I willing to change my behaviors if I expect a change to occur?
The monkey and banana story is certainly a simplistic way of looking at rather complex human behaviors but it’s a great story to remember whenever you find yourself asking “why are we doing this?” and the response is something like “we have always done it like this!” Just because you have always done it a certain way does not mean that it cannot be changed. You just have to acknowledge how much you want the banana and what are you willing to risk to get it.