Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Monkey Squirt

Why do we keep doing things the way they've always been done? Especially when those ways of doing things make no sense? 

Sometimes we do it because it's tradition. We're carrying on the customs of our families or our culture. It's a way of honoring those who came before us. There's also rituals. Established ceremonies groups use to commune with their deities. Recipes make sure things turn out the same way every time. Verified repeatable results.

But then there are policies and procedures we always follow that make no sense. For example, printing out a document and copying it twice to document something, when an electronic copy can be filed in two different locations for backup purposes. Things no one ever asks "Why are we doing it this way?" And if you do ask why, then answer is probably "It's the way we've always done it." 

It's what I like to call "Monkey Squirt". I started calling it that after reading about a social conditioning experiment conducted with monkeys.

Begin with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result, and all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon the monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been done around here.

When is time to stop just going along with what's always been done and ending the cycle?


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