Do not trust the monkeys

I was going to talk about ritual and learned behavior. I was going to start with a story about a psych study I learned about years ago. In the study, they put five monkeys in a room with a ladder. At the top of the ladder was a banana. Every time one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get the banana, they were sprayed with frigid water as punishment. Eventually they stopped going up the ladder.

One by one, they removed a monkey that had been sprayed and added a naive monkey. Each time, the group of monkeys prevented the new guy/girl from climbing the ladder. Eventually, they had a room full of monkeys that prevented each other from going up the ladder, despite never being sprayed.

The study illustrates the way we learn dangerous, self-defeating lessons from each other despite none of us having tested our assumptions.

The problem is, the study never happened. It’s a fabricated story told for the first time in a mid-90s business book.

I discovered that the study was B.S. this morning as I prepared to write.

It’s disappointing, because the lesson is so alluring. It makes intuitive sense. It reveals the value of fable, myth, and religion – the veracity of the stories feels secondary to the wisdom they impart.

However, it is precisely the things we regard as fact that we should evaluate most closely.

We are terrible at this. Our brains natively seek evidence to confirm what we believe and what we want to believe. This leads to all sort of negative events, from systemic racial and gender bias, to catastrophic economic fragility, to misleading blog posts (very shameful).

You may have set some goals this year for things you want to learn. As students, whether in school or out, we have our curriculum. What we also require is an anti-curriculum: the set of knowledge that we seek to disconfirm by the end of the year. Set a goal to disprove at least one thing you regard as fact each month.

The surest path to wisdom is not adding what is true, but cutting away what is not true.

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