Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Five Monkeys Experiment


This was an experiment conducted by a psychologist named Harry Harlow, who focused on maternal-separation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments with monkeys.  In this one experiment, five monkeys were put inside a large cage.  There was a bunch of bananas hanging from a string with a ladder reaching up to the bananas.  When the first monkey noticed the bananas and started his climb up the ladder, a researcher immediately sprayed it with freezing cold water, along with the other monkeys.  They were all sprayed for five minutes.

After some time, a second monkey decides he’s going to climb the ladder to get the bananas.  The researcher again sprays all five monkeys with freezing water for five minutes.  The researcher then puts the hose away and never touches it again.  Inevitably, a third monkey goes for the bananas, but this time, it is attacked by the other four monkeys, keeping it from going up the ladder.  They are afraid of the freezing cold water punishment they have experienced twice already.

To continue the experiment, a researcher replaces one of these monkeys with a new monkey, who has never experienced the punishment of being sprayed with cold water for going after the bananas.  When the new monkey sees the bananas and the ladder, he heads towards the ladder.  As soon as he touches it, the other four monkeys attack him, stopping him from trying to go up the ladder.  If he tries to climb the ladder again, they attack him again, stopping him from doing so.  The new monkey learns that if he tries to go after the bananas, he will be attacked.

The researcher then replaces another one of the original monkeys with a new monkey who has never been sprayed for going after the bananas.  This monkey, too, decides to go after the bananas, but immediately gets attacked by the other four monkeys, including the monkey that had never been sprayed.  The replacing of the monkeys continues until all five of the original monkeys has been replaced.  Each time a new monkey goes for the bananas, the other four attack him to stop him.  Even though these monkeys have never been sprayed with cold water, by being attacked, they’ve learned not to go after the bananas.

It is hypothesized that if they could ask the monkeys why they don’t go for the bananas, they would say, “because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

The Takeaway

There is some debate as to whether this experiment really happened, but whether it did or didn’t, we can take some wisdom from this experiment.  We need to constantly question why things are the way they are.  Doing things a certain way because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is sure to leave people and organizations stuck in a rut.  We need to challenge how we do things.  We need to be constantly looking for better ways to do what we do on a daily basis.

Look at your life and what you do each day, both personally and professionally.  Do you do things because that’s they way it’s always been done?  Do you look for creative, more effective ways to accomplish the tasks in your life?  It is said that we need to look at everything we do with child-like eyes…asking questions as to why things are the way they are and what we can do to make them better.  This is how innovation and creativity is freed.

I ask you to look at what you do in a given day, at work and at home.  Could you do it differently? Could you do it better?  Are you looking for a better way?  Or are you afraid to reach for that banana?  

Share with your friends!!!