Can you set your own rules and live the life that you want? These are the two questions that Chris Guillebeau, author of the online manifesto A brief guide to world domination, tackles in his book The Art of Non-Conformity. The book starts with an experiment that has caught my attention and got me thinking about the power of education – how can you relate to this experiment? Is the same method applied by parents or by teachers? What are the consequences?
The Monkey, Banana and Water Spray Experiment
A monkey-hating sadist put five monkeys in a cage. The monkeys could not escape, but were given food and water at the bottom of the cage. The food was bland an uninspiring but it was enough to sustain life. The monkeys were destined to spend their lives looking out of the cage; watching an exciting life pass them by.
One day, the sadist placed a ladder in the middle of the cage. At the top of the ladder sat a bright yellow bunch of bananas. One monkey, eager to break free from the bland food they were forced to eat, scaled the ladder. Just as the monkey reached for the bananas, a hose appeared out of nowhere and doused the monkey with icy cold water. The other monkeys were also doused.
Over the next few days, different monkeys would attempt to reach the bananas. Each time they were met with the same icy fate. Eventually the monkeys began violently attacking any other monkey that attempted to scale the ladder. The monkeys stopped trying.
About a week later, the sadist removed one monkey and replaced it with another new monkey. Almost immediately, the new monkey started scaling the ladder to reach the bananas. The other monkeys, familiar with their impending dousing, pulled the monkey off the ladder and beat it without mercy. The monkey did not try again.
The next day, another monkey was replaced. The same scenario ensued. After five days, all the original monkeys were replaced with new monkeys. These new monkeys had never experienced the dousing, yet they violently attacked the new monkey when they tried to scale the ladder.
The experiment has been described here: 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.