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The #NowIUnderstand glossary: the five monkeys theory, or the story of social conditioning

After talking about the 5W1H method and the 5 Whys, now we turn our attention to the “five monkeys theory” (also known as the “five monkeys experiment”).

We are becoming the victims of soul-conditioning, of sanctions and permits.
Charlie Chaplin

What is the five monkey theory?

Attach a banana to the ceiling. Place a ladder underneath the banana, having installed a system that showers the whole room in cold water whenever an attempt is made to climb the ladder.

When everything is ready, get a number of chimpanzees to enter the room, and observe.

Every time a chimp starts climbing the ladder, the entire room is showered in cold water. After a while, any chimp attempting to climb the ladder is harangued by the others, until the point is reached when all the chimps stop trying.

But that is not the end of the experiment. The chimps are then gradually replaced, one after the other. Any new chimp entering the room tries to climb the ladder, but gets harassed by the others. The experiment continues until there are no longer any chimps in the room that have actually experienced the unpleasantness of the cold shower. All that remains are “second generation” chimps who will nonetheless dissuade any new chimps from climbing the ladder, and who also no longer check whether the cold shower is still operating (when it has in fact been disconnected).

Let’s talk about social conditioning

The idea was first mentioned by C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel in their book “Competing for the future”, but it would appear their efforts were based on work actually conducted by G.R. Stephenson in 1967 (in “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys”), albeit by misappropriating the conditions and findings of this experiment for their own ends. For them, it demonstrated and supported their point of view that myths are perpetuated through a culture without ever being challenged, whether that culture is a society, an organisation or even a family.

Is the monkey theory itself a myth?

However, further investigation reveals that a number of sources challenge whether the experiment actually happened, as can be read in this article. Whether or not the experiment really took place, this theory clearly shows us the power of conditioning over time, and that was probably the main point Prahalad and Hamel were making.

Understanding the monkey theory

The forbidden behaviour pattern (not climbing the ladder) was consolidated in chimpanzees by individual experience or by social pressure. This cultural conditioning was driven by a given population, passed on and perpetuated through time. In this way, it became the rule. Conditions might change later but rules often remain without being challenged or questioned.

The way businesses operate sometimes succumbs to the same effect, getting caught in a spiral of conditioning and social pressure. The absence of any challenge helps to foster real resistance to change, and a lack of thinking more generally. How many people in how many businesses are assigned to a particular job just because that is always the way it has been done?

Conformism versus Innovation

Conformism and dogmatic stances definitely quash any potential for innovation that might deliver new solutions to the problems and issues that arise every day. Working methods and organisational systems inherited from the past forming genuine obstacles to productivity and progress can regularly be seen in businesses. It is important to be wary of widespread conditioning which is past its sell-by date and can occasionally create more malfunctions…

It is crucial to keep an open mindset, allowing everyone to be curious about and to challenge the status quo, ask questions, explore new avenues, and try new things. This does not mean questioning everything, but simply allowing employees to freely express their opinions and ideas to tap the potential for innovation.

If the term participative innovation can sometimes seem something of a cliché, it does nonetheless convey all the fundamental ideas relating to organisational performance such as openness and questioning as second nature. To succeed, innovation must not be compartmentalised within a special department working in relative isolation, nor take the form of sporadic innovation challenges, but instead be built into the corporate culture.

Download our comprehensive guide to setting up an effective innovation culture in your business now:

Innovation culture: the long-awaited guide to success!