in Working out loud

The Five Monkeys Experiment (with a new lesson)

Consider yourself lucky if you ever get the opportunity to hear Eddie Obeng give a talk.

The 5 Monkeys ExpermentMy first introduction to him was a video of his TED talk on “Smart failure for a fast-changing world”. This week at JiveWorld, he gave the keynote speech. With passion and some unorthodox presentation techniques, he walked us a through a range of practical insights about human beings and ways to change behavior. Everyone loved it.

At the end, he closed with a story about five monkeys that captures the state of things in most organizations and that provides hope, indirectly, for how we can make things better.

The Five Monkeys Experiment

Ambitions, innovations, and dreams

Ambitions, innovations, and dreams

An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder.

The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys.

The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.

Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed.

Monkeys at work

A modern version of the experiment

A modern version of the experiment

By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.

The metaphor and the lessons that apply to work are clear. Despite the exhortations from management to be innovative and collaborative, cold water is poured on people and their ideas whenever someone tries something new. Or, perhaps worse, the other employees suppress innovation, and learned helplessness spreads throughout the firm.

Now what? A modern lesson 

A way out

A way out

As Eddie Obeng finished the story, we all nodded knowingly. And yet two questions sprang to mind:

Did it ever happen?

If so, what can we do about it?

A quick search reveals it did happen though the details are quite different.  In 1967. “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys” by Stephenson et al. (EDIT: Added the qualifier and updated the link to point directly to the original research paper. See the note below.) I found, like many good stories, the 5 monkeys story has been told elsewhere, though Eddie Obeng’s story-telling brings it to life.

The original lesson seemed to be: “if you’re trapped with a malevolent experimenter, don’t go for the bananas”. Today, though, we can do something that wasn’t possible for those monkeys in 1967: we can change the experiment. That is, instead of just accepting the work environment we happen to be placed in, we can take more control now than ever before.

By working out loud – making our work visible and discoverable – we can create purposeful networks and come in contact with wildly different experiments going on in your own firm and in organizations around the world. Different objectives, different incentives, different management styles, different support systems.

You don’t have to take it any more. If you feel trapped, you can reach through the bars of your current environment and come into contact with possibilities you’d have never known about otherwise by working in a more open, more connected way. Today, whatever experiment you find yourself in, you can make your work and life better.

Note: In the original post I said “It did happen” and that motivated a few people who pointed me to a thorough analysis of the paper I cited and how the lessons in the original research varied from this post. What I meant and should have written was that there was a study that was indeed the basis of the story, not that the research provided proof. After all, It was a small study with a few monkeys. Nevertheless, just as we teach our kids about the Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed so they won’t bump their heads, the story above serves as a cautionary tale that can help people be more mindful of what they’re doing and why.

Update: If you don’t want to be like a monkey in a cage, read Working Out Loud, now available on Amazon.


  • themanwithnoboo

    There is not a ‘like a lot’ button John (needs inventing). So true as we see in our world, but we can and must keep trying to change it; doesn’t matter how painful it gets, because once we succeed this story gets flipped on its head: Climbing the ladder becomes the norm and failure to do so gets the beating – metaphorically speaking 🙂

  • Christina Conklin

    He was great! Thanks for preserving this in writing.

  • Michael Norwich

    Hi John — having a real tough time getting to senior people at Jive and Yammer re demo-ing at our exciting Fiji Summit. Can you please help and introduce me, even if they have to pass me on?

    With thanks Michael

    Sent from my iPad

  • Jae Yang

    Social Conditioning is very real, you can say the same with humans and culture. Psychologically, it is known as conditioning (Pavlov) or Positive & Negative Operant Condtioning (Skinner) The human mind is created though parents, teachers, schools, friends, experiences, play, work, and our social & living environment .

  • Ian Finch

    Excellent summary and one of the reasons we’re so behind initiatives like PLAY at Mando ( I believe as leaders we must always desire to say ‘yes’ and support refinement of an idea in our teams. People want to do great things but through ignorance and apathy management can often just want to find the quickest route to ‘no’

  • Brendan Francis

    Agreed….we must all encourage greater sharing of ideas…not every idea is going to be a major success but surely by encouraging others to think outside the box and not be afraid to share we get to uncover opportunities that you may not have found in a more closed off environment.

  • Mary-Pat Nealon

    Hey John –

    I gave an intro last week during the Women’s event we hosted at Elmo in Chelsea, then referenced something I read from this forum. Change is difficult for us as human beings…we tend not to do it unless it’s just too painful not to change. Organizations are made up of people, so, of course the changes necessary for organizations to grow can be slow, unsteady and fraught with resistance and criticisms. In the end, the shift begins and eventually gains momentum. Thanks for this week’s timely reminder.

  • chrisdittrick

    Love the analogy John. I’m sure anyone looking to influence positive change inside their organization has heard those oh-so limiting words “we’re not ready for that here.” Love how this allows us to break free of the cage. 🙂

  • Mike Wise (@MikeWise07)

    Thanks so much for sharing this story. Brilliant. Sounds like Jive World was great as well. Hope your preso went well. Curious if you can share a link to it.

  • Irene Johansen

    I’m there, where I work. But I’m trying to climb the ladder anyway… Thanks for the encouragement!

    • John Stepper

      You go, girl. Don’t let the crazy lab technicians get you down. (And work on building your external network!)

  • swdevperestroika
  • tevirselrahc

    Reblogged this on Selrahc's Platinum and commented:
    I can say I’ve felt like a monkey sometimes during my career…

  • Nicola

    Wonderful! Bravo John 🙂

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  • avandone

    Well John, I decided not to feel a monkey anymore… And try a new way on my own! Thanks!

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  • avandone

    John, unfortunately not everybody in italy speaks english, so I had to adapt your post… Hope you’ll forgive me!!

    • John Stepper

      Mille grazie!! Everything sounds better in Italian – even my blog posts. 🙂

  • Alexis Kim

    I came across your blog while reading about hedonic treadmill theory. Love your blog posts!

    • John Stepper

      Hello, Alexis and thank you.

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  • George Dinwiddie

    I first heard of this experiment in the early 1970s, but I fear now that what gets said about it is all hearsay, and not based on experimental data. It has been worked to mean what people want it to mean.

    Note that says “It sounds like a similar monkey experiment did take place, and the results were similar to that presented in the picture, but if this is the same experiment, most of the details are wrong.”

    • John Stepper

      Hello, George. I think it’s safe to say that even if the 5 monkeys experiment occurred exactly as stated, it wouldn’t be enough to prove much about human behavior. So you’re right that it’s more of a good story than good science.

      Having said that, we’ve all had similar experiences to these monkeys. The kind of Abilene Paradox where we do things because of what we perceive to be social norms but which are actually bad for the group and individuals in it.


      • Kevin Gabbert

        John, you should really remove your claim that “it did happen”, as your link states the opposite, that it was likely made up.

        It is a good story we can learn from, but you should be honest about it being a story.

        • John Stepper

          Hi, Kevin. I updated the link in the post to the original study that seems to be the inspiration for the story. There’s a thread on skeptics.stackexchange which says the story was made up by Gary Hamel but that same thread includes the reference to the 1966 study which is how I found it.

          Thanks for keeping me honest! I didn’t intend to mislead which is why I cited the original study in the post. Hope the direct link to it will help.

      • Will Riker

        As you clearly state that the experiment “did happen” while providing a link specifically detailing that it didn’t, I personally hold you responsible for the dumbing down of humanity via the wilful spread of idiotic misinformation. Please die in a hole.

        “C. K. Prahalad or Gary Hamel made up the experiment for their book.”

        • John Stepper

          Thanks, Will, for catching that link and for your suggestion to die in a hole. Made me smile. Here’s the study the story was based on. I’ll link to that instead. The study was in 1966 and used an air blast instead of water but I think it’s still useful as more than just a metaphor. “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys” (Stephenson)

  • Andy Whitehead

    Reblogged this on AMPW and commented:
    Watch out for ‘Learned Helplessness’ in work!

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  • Walter Mwambazi

    A well written out post and love the way you have adapted this. I am asking for your permission to quote your version of this five monkeys story in my soon to be coming book. I will credit you for this one. 😉
    Oh BTW I am in Lusaka, Zambia!

    • John Stepper

      Please do! I’d be honored. Hello from New York City!

    • John Stepper

      Would be honored. Thank you Walter! And hello from New York City! Do you have a book title yet? I’ll be on the lookout for it.

  • erock68la

    The 5 monkeys experiment also explains why people perpetuate religious nonsense.

    • Jay Geater

      I agree.

      and nonsense in general when it comes from a centralized authority with a monopoly on force.

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  • Ben

    The greatest thing about the five monkeys stories is that it teaches us how unquestioning we are when it comes to ‘sage advice’ offered by our mentors. The story is almost entirely fabricated, and the original source (that you cite) does not support any of the claims made in the popular version (it does not involve any substitution). This is a lesson on always looking for and properly reading primary sources before we claim something as gospel.

    There’s a beautiful irony in that, given the content of the myth.

    • John Stepper

      Hello, Ben. I’ve been meaning to thank you for your comment. As a result I added a note at the end of the post to explain the reference more clearly.

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  • Øťhmañė Eł Mėłłałì

    How does the experiment with the monkeys relate to human culture ?

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