The Monkey Story
As I’ve said before, a huge percentage of my job is writing and communication. I’ve measured a few times, and in a typical week, it can be over 30,000 words between email, formal documents, and various reports. Naturally, not all of this content is unique; I have a number of standard items I pull out when needed, especially analogies to explain things or, more commonly, the why of things. I’ll be posting some of those here, as Fiction, under the tag “Stories for Work”. Some of them are my own, some of them are from other sources, most are a mix. If you know a source for one of my stories, please fill me in.
I often tell people that a process needs to be reviewed and updated. By far, the most common response is “but we’ve always done it this way.” When that happens, I tell a version of this story. Language etc. gets tailored for the audience.
So, these behavioral scientists put five monkeys in a big, comfortable habitat. It has all the comforts of monkey heaven, except for one thing – the food is really bland. Like, plain mashed potatoes bland.
In the center of the habitat is a tall ladder with a giant bowl of fruit at the top – all the things monkeys love to eat. The fruit is always fresh, and the monkeys can see it and smell it – they know what it is, where it is, and that they really, really want it.
One thing though – any time a monkey touches the ladder, all the other monkeys are hosed down with icy water. Yes, these scientists are real bastards.
In very short order, the monkeys make a rule – if any monkey tries to touch the ladder, the other monkeys will grab them and beat the shit out of them. Monkey justice is swift and harsh.
Pretty soon no monkey ever goes near that ladder.
The scientists then replace one monkey with a new one. This new monkey has never seen the habitat or been hosed down with water. Naturally, they head straight for the fruit; the other monkeys follow their process and beat the shit out of them. Pretty soon, lesson learned.
The scientists continue replacing monkeys until eventually, all five monkeys in the habitat are replacements. None of them have ever climbed the ladder. None of them have ever been hosed down with ice water. The lab budget for fruit is ridiculous considering none of it is ever eaten, so they turn off the ice water.
At this point, if you spoke Monkish and asked one of these monkeys why they don’t go after the fruit, they’d know exactly why – because they don’t want a beating.
But if you asked them why going after the fruit earns a beating, they could only give one answer – “I dunno, but we’ve always done it this way.”