Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bureaucracies are built one monkey at a time

I have lived for most of the previous 35 years within one huge bureaucracy or another.  Living in a big institution changes a man.  It takes away his ability to see the world as a normal person would. 

As Morgan Freeman explained so well in the film, Shawshank Redemption, 

"These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized."

Last week I heard a great story about how bureaucratic institutions create such strong and usually intractable cultures.   Institutions where the inmates seem to do the same things over and over, in spite of logic or changing environments.  I'm not sure if the story is true, but it's too good not to share.

A psychologist set up an experiment with five monkeys in a large cage.   Inside the cage, he hung a banana on a string and placed a set of stairs under it. 

Before long, one of the monkeys would go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touched the stairs, the psychologist would spray all of the other monkeys with very cold water.   Monkeys hate cold water and they would howl.

After a while, another monkey would brave an attempt, but would likewise meet with the same result - that all of the other monkeys would be sprayed with cold water. 

Monkeys are smart and they soon figured out that if any monkey went for a banana ... they would get a cold shower.  Therefore, when any monkey tried to climb the stairs, the other monkeys would beat the hell of him to prevent him from getting them all sprayed.

Then the psychologist put away the cold water and removed one monkey from the cage.  He replaced the original monkey with a brand new one.   

Of course, the new monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs. However, to his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attacked him.  After another attempt and attack, he quickly learned that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted by the others. 

Next, the psychologist removed another from the original set of five monkeys and replaced it with a new, unconditioned monkey. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is immediately attacked. 

The amazing thing is that even the previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, the psychologist replaced a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked by the existing monkeys.

Now we have a situation where the monkeys that are beating the newcomer have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. 

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

And that's how bureaucratic institutions are forged ... one beaten monkey at a time. 


Pat said...

Love It! (I think it is true.)

Bob said...

This is a really great story.