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Monkeys, Bananas & ‘Mob Culture’


Monkeys, Bananas & ‘Mob Culture’

I recently received an amusing email from a friend that spoke about an experiment involving a number of monkeys, a ladder, some bananas and a cold shower. After reading the email and agreeing with its sentiments, I realised that it struck a chord with me and I couldn’t shake off the message it conveyed. I conducted a little research into the alleged experiment to find that it did actually take place back in 1967 as an experiment into ‘mob culture’.

The experiment goes along the lines of a group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage. In the middle was a ladder with bananas at the top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists showered all of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder the other monkeys beat him up. After some time no monkey dared climb the ladder, regardless of the temptation.

The scientists decided to substitute one of the monkeys. The first thing the new monkey did was climb the ladder to get the bananas. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up. After several beatings the new member learned not to climb the ladder, although never knowing why.

The second monkey was substituted and the same occurred. The first monkey participated on beating the second monkey. A third monkey was substituted and the same was repeated. The fourth was substituted and the beating was repeated, and finally the fifth monkey was replaced.

What was left was a group of 5 monkeys that even though never received a cold shower, continued to beat up any monkey that attempted to climb the ladder. If it were possible to ask the monkeys why they beat up all who attempted to climb the ladder, I bet their answer would be: “I don’t know, that’s how things are done around here”.

Now I’m fully aware that we’re discussing monkeys and we’re human beings and as such we’re obviously far more evolved, developed and intellectually advanced than our genetic cousins… but just how much more advanced are we in our rationale and thought processes?

In 2004, Edgar Schein discusses “unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings. The ultimate source of values and action.” (Schein, 2004). This is the element you see or experience but it is difficult to understand ‘the why’. Often these assumptions conflict with the ‘values’ promoted on posters and intranets or discussed in inductions.

For instance, a healthcare organisation is extremely proud of their strong culture and ethos of caring for patients. From their new employee induction and orientation program to their performance management program, everything focussed on caring, quality and more importantly for this example, speaking up when they saw something wrong.

Several years ago, a new nurse just out of induction publicly corrected a physician and was openly “flogged” in front of colleagues, patients and superiors. That nurse later became a mentor to several other nurses, and quickly explained that what they learned in orientation about speaking up was a bad idea, and they would actually be subject to disciplinary action if they challenged a physician or a more senior nurse.

Year after year, the unspoken rule is handed down and the energy and excitement of hearing the values at induction gives way to cynicism and silence.

The same occurs within the realm of understanding reasonable force and its application. All too often I have heard staff within care homes, schools and hospitals tell me that it is illegal to use physical force to prevent someone harming themselves or another. It is assault to use physical force to use force to protect oneself from attack, particularly if the assailant hasn’t actually struck first.

However, when I have asked the usual question “Who told you that?” the response is usually a manager, a supervisor or another colleague. Quite often they cannot remember who told them; however, they perpetuate the myth based on misinformed assumption through ‘the ranks’.

The result? Reduced morale, staff feeling unsupported and more importantly, staff feeling unsafe and even scared.

Don’t be the monkey! Get informed, do your own research and ask questions. Information is readily available from a wide variety of sources including the internet, the Government legislation website, and industry specialists like the team at COVIC Training Solutions. We are on hand to offer legally accurate advice, guidance and support in relation to the use of reasonable force, conflict management, and training needs.


Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, Jossey Bass, pp. 26.

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