Five Monkeys and Tradition

As recorded by J.D. Bentley November 1st, 2017
Five Monkeys and Tradition

Tradition is nothing more than stifling legalism, unnecessary rules that exist only to hinder the freedom of an individual, just a ploy to bind them by certain responsibilities and obligations to which they never agreed.

That is to say, tradition is nothing more than untested superstition.

Five Monkeys and a Ladder

In 1966, scientists decided to do a study on herd mentality, on traditions enforced from generation to generation. In order to do this, they placed five monkeys in a cage that contained only a ladder. At the top of the ladder there hung bananas.

The monkeys, obviously attracted to the bananas, began to climb the ladder to get them. Each time a monkey set foot on the ladder, the scientists doused all of them with ice cold water as a punishment. They did this so often that eventually when any monkey started to approach the ladder, the other monkeys dragged him off and beat him up. This happened until no monkey dared to approach the ladder.

The scientists then decided to see what would happen if they replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey who was completely ignorant of the ice cold water punishment. The new monkey, upon entering the cage, began to walk over to the ladder. The scientists had no intention of punishing the monkeys with ice cold water at this point. If the new monkey had gotten the bananas, he would have gotten the bananas.

But he did not.

The other four monkeys, remembering their punishment, dragged the new monkey from the ladder and beat him up. The new monkey tried once or twice more, getting beat up each time until eventually he stopped trying. The new monkey adapted to the demands of the herd even though he did not experience the ice cold water punishment.

The scientists then repeated this four more times, replacing each of the original monkeys, but the herd mentality continued. When the fifth monkey was finally replaced, the new monkey attempted to climb the ladder and the four others dragged him off and beat him up.

If it was possible to ask those monkeys why they refused to let any other monkey climb the ladder, they would all answer, "I don’t know." Not a single monkey had experienced the punishment, but this tradition had been passed down to them.

Don’t climb the ladder.

Because of this mindless tradition, the monkeys were never able to climb the ladder, never able to get the bananas, and they never knew why. Such is tradition, a series of limiting beliefs without any real purpose.



Ironically, this "Five Monkeys" study that is often passed around to show the dangers of a herd mentality and mindless inherited beliefs never happened. Its sharing and retelling is itself an example of herd mentality and mindless inherited beliefs.

In the only study that vaguely resembles this story—G.R. Stephenson’s Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys—Stephenson wanted to see if a learned response in one monkey could be transferred to another. It was never about a herd mentality.

The first monkey was placed in a room with an object. If it attempted to manipulate that object, it was blasted with cold air. When a second monkey, the naive monkey, was introduced, Stephenson wanted to see if the first monkey would influence the second or if the second would influence the first. In some pairs, the original monkey’s avoidance of the object influenced the naive monkey to also avoid it. However, in other cases the naive monkey’s fearlessness led the original monkey to eventually also manipulate the object.

The study in no way illustrated that certain behaviors and traditions passed on from one set of monkeys to another were just nonsense superstition. If the belief was unfounded, the naive monkey would occasionally destroy it. It teaches exactly the opposite of what the popular story seems to say.

What is Tradition?

The original, more popular version of the story says more about what this culture we find ourselves in believes about tradition. To get a grasp on what tradition really is versus what it is not, I think it’s useful to start at this quote from Gustav Mahler:

"Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire."

It is true that, by its very nature, tradition often obligates us to certain behaviors and beliefs which contradict a world obsessed with individual freedom and absolute unrestrained deviance. It is for this reason that tradition is painted as nothing more than ashes, dead lifeless refuse that should be discarded.

But it really is the fire, the flame. Tradition is a collection of what works. In this particular age, we like to think we are on the cutting edge of everything, wiser than anyone who came before us. The idea that perhaps our ancestors had figured something out that we have subsequently forgotten is what helps further this view of tradition as ashes.

And this is what I mean when I write about a tyranny of the living, this tendency to disregard what came before simply because we are alive now and we must be the cutting edge. G.K. Chesterton wrote about it a hundred years ago:

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

More recently, I read a quote that I think best illustrates tradition and its purposes. The first time I saw it, it was unattributed, but a quick search seems to suggest that it is found in a book called Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury.

"Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back. Sometimes the problem has mutated or disappeared. Often it is still there as strong as it ever was."

This is what the original, fictional five monkeys story negates to tell us. Tradition most often exists as a remedy to some problem of human nature, and human nature has not changed. "Often it is still there as strong as it ever was."

And this is the problem we see today, a vast revolution tearing down institutions and beliefs and behaviors that were put in place with good reason.

Thus, the only real revolution is restoration. The most progressive society is that which turns off the wrong path quickest.