On Socrates and Monkeys…

Question everythingOne of the most important lessons that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates taught was to question everything – not necessarily to question and ultimately overthrow authority, but to always endeavor to understand why things are the way they are, and why we do the things we do. I found a nice little story that clearly illustrates this point.

Psychologists have conducted what has become a classic monkey experiment: They put a number of monkeys into a large cage, in the center of which they place a banana hung above an insulated staircase. Eventually, one of the monkeys will climb the stairs to try to get the banana. When he does, all of the other monkeys receive an electric shock through the metal floor of the cage. This is repeated for several days every time a monkey tries to climb the stairs.

Subsequently, after the shocks are no longer administered, when a monkey tries to approach the stairs, the other monkeys will attack it to keep it from climbing them. They have learned to protect themselves by keeping their fellow monkeys away from the staircase.

Next, one of the monkeys is replaced with a new one that has never been shocked. The new monkey will try to ascend the stairs, but the trained monkeys will attack it to stop it. The new monkey quickly realizes that if it approaches the stairs, it will be attacked, so it learns to stay away.

One by one, each of the original monkeys is replaced with a new one. As each new monkey approaches the stairs, he is attacked by all of the monkeys, even the ones who were never shocked. They have learned the behavior from the other monkeys. Each new monkey in his turn learns to attack any monkey who approaches the stairs, even though it has no idea why it does it.

When all the monkeys have been replaced, and even though none of the monkeys in the cage has ever been shocked, no monkey will approach the stairs. Why? If you could ask one of the monkeys, he’d probably tell you “That’s the way we’ve always done it here.”

Keeping this little story in mind has helped me examine how things in my life operate and question the reasons why. It is said that understanding is the first half of solving a problem, and though not all things in life are necessarily “problems,” understanding them certainly helps one deal with them more effectively, and often, more efficiently.