That “Five Monkeys Experiment” Never Happened
You may have seen this story about the Five Monkeys Experiment recently:
Apparently it is supposed to describe a real scientific experiment that was performed on a group of monkeys, and it is supposed to raise profound questions about our tendency to unquestioningly follow the herd. Unfortunately it is complete and utter nonsense, because no such experiment ever happened.
Ironically, so many people are sharing this unverified pseudoscientific gibberish that it really does reveal our tendency to unthinkingly follow the herd; after all, why would you bother verifying an article about monkeys that literally has the tag line “think before you follow”?
This story has been doing the rounds since 1996, and it has never been verified. It seems to have first appeared in a book called Competing For The Future by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, and by “appeared” I mean it was just made up. The authors never provided a source. None of the authors who have referred to the experiment in the past eighteen years have provided a source either. None of the appealing memes or infographics that describe the story now provide a source. Suffice to say, there is no source, because the experiment never happened.
(I got some of this information from an internet chatroom, posted by a guy called BlueRaja. If you would like to check up on what I have said, you can do that.)
The article has gained popularity recently because it appeared in a TED Talk by some guy called Eddie Obeng,* showing once again that TED Talks are responsible for the spread of intellectual garbage and superficially appealing, hyperbolic misinformation. A blogger by the name of John Stepper writes about how amazing the Talk was and how Eddie was able to bring this untrue story to life. He then asks if it really happened, and says:
“A quick search reveals it did happen though the details are quite different.”
This is perfectly true, if by “quite different” he really means “not the same at all, in any way.”
Stepper’s “proof” that it happened “a little differently” is an article by G.R. Stephenson called Cultural Acquisition Of A Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys (1966). The very existence of a scientific-sounding source seems to be enough to lend this ‘experiment’ some credibility (it’s got a big name and a date and everything) but all you need to do is read the experiment yourself to see that it has absolutely nothing to do with this ‘fable’ at all. They may as well have provided this as a source:
Did Stephenson put five monkeys in a room and spray them with water if they climbed up a ladder to reach a banana? Of course not.
As you can see, the experiment is different in just a couple of minor ways:
- Stephenson wanted to know if a learned behaviour in one monkey could induce a lasting effect on a second monkey. He was not making a study of group dynamics or herd behaviour at all.
- He examined four sets of unisexual monkey pairs, not five random monkeys in a group.
- The objects he used were plastic kitchen utensils, not a banana.
- The type of punishment was an air blast, not a water blast.
- There was no ladder- the object was just placed at one end of a controlled area.
To summarise, nothing about this real experiment is the same as the story. Nothing at all.
And what were the actual results of this barely relevant, totally different experiment?
So in some pairs the new ‘naive’ monkey did learn to fear the object after seeing how the conditioned monkey was afraid of it. However, in other pairs, the fearless behaviour of the naive monkey ended up teaching the conditioned one not to fear the object anymore. Note that this is exactly the wrong type of evidence for a charming story about “following the herd”.
Curiously, the results were gender-specific: in three male-paired cases the learned behaviour was transferred, in three female-paired cases it was not, and in two it was inconclusive. The female monkeys seemed to learn behaviours simply by observation (including cases in which the punished monkey learned that there would be no more air blasts by watching the new monkey play with the object). The male pairs behaved differently, tending to teach a behaviour physically. The punished monkey actively admonished the newer one by pulling them away from the object.
The sample size is small and no bullshit should be inferred.
Unfortunately, a few decades after this study was published some moronic self-help author read it and thought “it’s almost good, but if I make it much more sensational and implausible, I will sell a lot of books! Though I don’t have any real truths, I can help people by showing them essential truths I’ve just made up!” And then you read it on Facebook, and thousands of people shared it, believing it to be true.
It’s one thing to share a meme because it sounds cool. We have all done it, myself included, even though it is a truly terrible misuse of our intelligence and most of us would not want our children to be mindlessly repeating hearsay and gossip because it sounds cool.
However, I can’t help but wonder how a blogger like John Stepper can be so smitten by the power of rhetoric that after hearing this implausible story about five monkeys he tries to validate it by referring to an unrelated study, and decides that “the details are a bit different.” No John, the details are not a bit different, they are so different that it makes your “evidence” irrelevant. Without evidence, you are just helping to spread misinformation. Please, please use your brain.
In fact, everybody, please stop sharing articles like this. It doesn’t take long to find out if something is true. This is one of the things our years of secondary (and perhaps tertiary) education were supposed to teach us: think before you follow!
Now, if only there was a cool story about some scientific-sounding thing I could quote to give my rant a bit more substance…
*UPDATE: As Eddie Obeng points out in the comments below, I was incorrect in saying that he delivered this story at a TED Talk. He definitely did not use cutesy projected graphics to relay uplifting platitudes to an audience of gullible twats at a TED event- he did it at JiveWorld instead, which is probably completely different.
He also insists it is a fable, not a story about a real experiment. This is probably why he introduces it as “an experiment I came across; apparently a group of researchers were looking at behaviour. What they did was, they got five monkeys…”