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The experiment of monkeys, bananas and ladders: obeying absurd norms

The experiment of monkeys, bananas and ladders: obeying absurd norms

June 24, 2021

It is a story that many of us have heard in conversations about the acceptance of the rules by the masses.

An apparently simple experiment, with a small group of monkeys that are stuck in a cage and a few bananas that they could try to reach .

The experiment of the monkeys, the staircase and the bananas

As in almost all the investigations in which the behavior of animals is studied, the experiment begins with a cage. Inside it 5 healthy monkeys are placed and, in the center of the interior, a staircase with bananas in its highest part.


As expected, the monkeys do not take long to start climbing the ladder to reach the food . However, his plan is interrupted every time by an unpleasant surprise: every time a monkey climbs the steps, the researchers spray the rest of the primates with cold water.

This means that every attempt to access the bananas is transformed into a capital reprimand of the monkeys towards the individual who tries it: screams, blows, bites ... anything goes to make anyone else have a similar occurrence. These practices were quite effective: After a while, no monkey tried to catch the bananas, despite the temptation to eat them . But the interesting thing of the example comes later.


Introducing some changes

At this point, the researchers pull one monkey out of the cage and put another in its place. This "rookie" sees the bananas on the top of the stairs and, as he has not been able to keep up with what is happening to those who try to do something, he receives the blows and shouts of the others: the fear of freezing water continues being present. This monkey does not understand the reason for this punishment, since he has not witnessed how cold water falls, but after a few attempts he concludes, simply, that trying to reach bananas is not a good idea.

Once this is done, the researchers replace another of the monkeys with a new one. This newcomer does the same as the first one when he sees the plane trees and the staircase, and the response of the rest is the same: the punishment. But nevertheless, this time the first rookie monkey also participates in the reprimand .


From that point, the researchers replace all the monkeys until none of the 5 monkeys that remain in the cage have ever witnessed the fall of the ice water. When someone tries to climb the ladder, these animals continue to react with the same violence as the five monkeys at the beginning.

The fable of obedience to the rules

This story is about the realization of an experiment, but, although its setting has to do with what happens in some psychology and zoology laboratories, this research does not exist as such: it has not been done and, therefore, there is no conclusion with scientific value that can be extracted from it .

However, that does not mean that history has no value as a fable. And it is that the story of monkeys, bananas and the staircase is an example of blind obedience to norms by a group .

The first five monkeys had objective foundations for not wanting anyone to climb the ladder: every time they did, they were punished. But nevertheless, the other monkeys obeyed the rules without having reasons for it . And not only obeyed them, but perpetuated them through their behavior. The norm of the prohibition of climbing the ladder, despite its absurdity, had become part of their lives, to the point where they invested time and effort in making it continue to exist. Can the same thing happen with the norms that we choose to reproduce human beings through our actions?


Wrenched (June 2021).


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