First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

The Parable of the Five Monkeys

A friend sent me this a while back as an argument in favor of voting against political incumbents:

A group of psychologists performed an experiment years ago, in which they started with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, they hung a banana on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. Before long, a monkey went to the stairs and started to climb towards the banana. As soon as he started up the stairs, the psychologists sprayed all of the other monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey made an attempt to obtain the banana.  As soon as his foot touched the stairs, all of the other monkeys were sprayed with ice cold water. It's wasn't long before all of the other monkeys would physically prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.

Now, the psychologists shut off the cold water, removed one monkey from the cage and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attacked him.  After another attempt and attack, he discovered that if he tried to climb the stairs, he would be assaulted. Next they removed another of the original five monkeys and replaced it with a new one. The newcomer went to the stairs and was attacked. The previous newcomer took part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

Likewise, they replaced a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey tried to climb the stairs, he was attacked. The monkeys had no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they were beating any monkey that tried.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been around here.

And that, my friend said, is why occasionally all the monkeys should be replaced at once, the monkeys being incumbent politicians.

Now, the original research has been lost to history, if indeed it ever existed. Most sources consider it a parable and a thought experiment demonstrating organizational inertia and resistance to change.

But it provides an excellent explanation as to why bad ideas and outdated concepts persist in EMS organizational culture; because that's the way we've always done it.

I was reminded of this email by this comment thread on Paramedics on Facebook, in which I was reminded yet again that we still have plenty of monkeys who discourage the newcomer from reaching for the bananas, without really knowing why.

The motivation behind why we do a great many things in EMS has been long forgotten, but still enforced by new generations of unquestioning monkeys.

That's why every monkey EMT should actively seek out bananas ideas and and concepts from monkeys EMT's from other cages organizations.

Because if your justification for doing something is "That's the way we've always done it," or you reject contrary ideas because "That's not the way we learned it in school," you're just another unquestioning EMS monkey, and you'll always have to settle for working for bananas.

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