I want to admit a problem I have with you.

A problem that makes my work ten times harder than it could be.

But one which I cannot stop, because it is at the core of what I believe in.

The problem is related to truth and facts.

In my work, I need to be able to convince people to change their beliefs about their creativity and innovation ability. This requires them to sometimes change the belief about something they had previously thought was true, or sometimes even about their own identity.

And to achieve this, while reciting facts and research works to a degree, what is often much more effective is storytelling.

This is why motivational speakers are so popular. They can use stories to elicit feelings about how their audience feels about themselves, and these feelings and emotions can convince someone of something much faster than more rational discussions.

These stories can also quickly go viral online, since the emotional response can drive people to want to share them so that other people can feel what they felt.

Why this is a problem for me though…

… Is that a lot of these stories might not be true.

And if that were the case, if I were to recite a certain story to someone and it turns out that the story never actually happened, or worse, was based on unproven assumptions or made-up science, then the people I am speaking to might actually end up suffering as a result of what I tell them.

This is why I often need to spend a ridiculous amount of time checking every source I read to find out which sources were quoted and if it therefore actually happened.

The lie about 8 cold, wet monkeys

There is a specific story that was the reason I am writing this article.

When I heard it, it seemed too good to be true: a scientific experiment showing that following the status quo and not trying new things is hardwired into our brains through evolution.

Here is the story of the experiment. But please don’t start sharing it, as I am about to ruin it for you!

  • There were 8 monkeys in a large cage, with a ladder in the middle
  • The scientist running the experiment hung a bunch of bananas at the top of the cage. The only way to reach the bananas was to climb the ladder, which was easy
  • The moment the first monkey tried climbing the ladder to get the banana, the scientist took a water hose and sprayed all the monkeys with freezing cold water until they were soaked and uncomfortable. The spraying stopped once the monkey on the ladder jumped down again.
  • This really irritated all the monkeys, none of which got a banana
  • When a second monkey began climbing the ladder to get the banana, the scientist again sprayed all the monkeys with freezing cold water
  • The third time a monkey tried climbing the ladder and the monkeys got sprayed, the other monkeys violently pulled that monkey off the ladder and started hitting it to make it stop, and the spraying was stopped
  • After that, no monkeys tried climbing the ladder anymore. There was only a group of 8 cold, wet monkeys
  • Then, the scientist took out one of the wet monkeys and replaced it with a new dry monkey who had not seen the other monkeys getting sprayed
  • That dry monkey quickly sees the bananas and tries climbing the ladder, but the 7 wet monkeys immediately pull it off the ladder violently (but this time, there is no spraying of water)
  • The dry monkey doesn’t know why, but the group has showed it that it should not go near the ladder
  • One by one, the scientists then replace the remaining cold wet monkeys with new dry ones. Each time, the newest dry monkey tries to climb the ladder to get the banana, but is pulled down violently and attacked by the rest of the group, including the other dry monkeys
  • Eventually, there are only new dry monkeys in the cage. None of them try to climb the ladder to get the bananas. And yet none of them know why. None of them were ever sprayed with cold water. They just learned it from the other monkeys, because “that is the way things are around here”
  • This is how the status quo operates. People do things just because other people tell them “that is the way it always has been done”, and they never question it themselves

Once I saw the story once, I began researching it, and found it all of the web and youtube on motivational websites.

But each of those sites just listed an obscure experiment from the 1960s on monkeys as their source.

I thought it would be a great story to share in workshops, but I wanted to make sure it was true first. So I began searching for the original experiment.

I couldn’t find it.

There was no experiment about 8 monkeys being sprayed with cold water anywhere in the literature.

Then after hours of searching, I found the original article that the story was based on: Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In the book: Starck, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

It did not even have a journal reference where I could review the experiment or authenticity.

Then after even more searching, I finally found a PDF of the original research.

What I found was … disappointing.

There was no ladder, no bananas and no spraying water.

There were not even eight monkeys together.

Instead, it was a single rhesus monkey in a box which sprayed a bit of air. Just enough to give the monkey a scare but nothing damaging.

This is a picture of the apparatus:

In it, a single monkey is put in a long cage with an object they know (plastic kitchen utensils like a seive, cup, mustard jar, etc.). When they go to try to touch the object, a jet of air scares them. Later, a second new “naive” monkey is introduced into the cage. This was done six times, and the results were:

  • In one instance, the first monkey grabbed the second naive monkey and pulled it away from the object
  • In two instances, the first monkeys made a “threat” facial expression but did not prevent the second naive monkey from approaching the object
  • In three instances (all with females), the first monkeys stayed away from the object but did not prevent the second monkey approaching it

So there you have it. An experiment which the story shows how strong the status quo can affect us all, is in fact a lie based on an experiment where this happened a single time out of multiple experiments.

The original story may have had a more emotional impact because what it says might feel more true. But in reality, it is not true. In fact, it is the opposite of what the experiment which is supposedly the source of the story actually demonstrated.

In fact, the original article quotes research showing that similar monkeys quickly unlearn threats if they are not exposed to them for a few generations (such as reaching towards a snake when not having seen a snake before, whereas wild monkeys learn the dangers of snakes).

This is why we need to be so careful of trusting stories just because they make us feel something.

The best stories are the ones that make us feel, but are also based on truth.

That is why I put so much effort into finding out the truth. So that the advice I give you is actually true.

Be careful what you believe blindly.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.