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But it provides an excellent explanation as to why bad ideas and outdated concepts persist in EMS organizational culture; because that's the way we've always done it.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

Comments - Add Yours

  • Michael Hatfield

    “That’s the way we’ve always done it,”

    I despise that comment with every fiber of my being……..

  • djmoore

    I’ve run across this story several times in the past few years, but suddenly, with your post, it is revealed to me to be a story about teaching.

    And that makes me ask, how do you teach a monkey to try new things, even when most of the others seek to bring it down?

  • MuleBreath

    It may have morphed into a parable, but the experiment was real.

    An interesting TED talk of parallel thought was offered by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford.

  • Jay G.

    I hate a Roman named Status Quo…

  • Jen R

    MD uses a modified version of a bastardized NEXUS criteria (for those of us who are not too scared to use it) yet several weeks ago I was hammered by a PA who pitched a fit that my pt, a young adult in good health involved in a frontal collision was not boarded and collared. The pt was restrained, in a 2010 or newer vehicle with moderate damage and all air bags had deployed. Only injury the pt had was a dislocated wrist. I was told that this particular injury was to be considered a “distracting injury,” which is one of the criteria for back boarding in my state. Note that there was no complaint of loss of consciousness, no cervical spine tenderness, just the wrist. It is not only EMTs and medics we must educate, but those hidebound “higher level providers” we bring our patients to.

    • Ambulance_Driver

      “Distracting injury” is anything that interferes with the patient participating in the exam, or the EMT from performing one.
      Calm patient with a broken wrist who answers all your questions and follows your commands = not distracted.
      Hysterical patient focusing on a superficial boo boo = distracted.

      You can’t say that any particular type of injury is distracting. It differs with each patient.