Monkeys in a Cage

The first few days after getting back from an extended trip are always chaotic — answering emails, returning calls, paying bills, running errands, writing articles, attending meetings, following up, processing photos, washing's utter chaos.

The past few days have been no different. After something around 40 hours of travel, I reached home, took a hot shower, unpacked, slept for about five hours, got up, started work, and haven't stopped since. Another couple of weeks and I might even catch up with everything I need to do. But of course, I'm off again soon, so my chances of getting through everything I need to do are about as good as Wile E. Coyote's chances of catching the Road Runner.

Amid the mad flurry of activity, I managed to catch up with a friend who happens to love the ocean as much as I do. He's a researcher with impeccable academic credentials, and he also happens to know a lot about humpback whales because of his field of expertise.

We got to discussing some of the things I've seen and experienced over the years in Tonga, and I described my frustration with the frequency with which I (and others) encounter resistance to new ideas, to observations in the field, etc. from people in academia.

Much to my surprise, he agreed, and related the following story to me:

Put a group of hungry monkeys in a cage, place a table in the middle, and set a bunch of bananas on the table. When the first monkey goes for a banana, blast it with a water cannon, and then blast the rest of the monkeys in the cage so they all get wet. When the second monkey tries, do the same. After a few times, the monkeys will no doubt catch on, and no longer reach for the bananas.

And here's where it gets interesting.

In order not to be completely cruel, let one of the monkeys out of the cage, and put a completely new (and hungry) monkey in its place — one that's not been through the water-cannon drill. With all the bananas on the table, the new monkey will no doubt reach for them, and of course be blasted by the water cannon. The other monkeys will also get hosed down, even though they resisted the urge to reach for a banana.

The new monkey will probably learn even more quickly than the original monkeys that bananas are forbidden fruit, since in addition to the unpleasant experience of being hosed down, it'll see that none of the other monkeys reached for the bananas, plus it'll probably get disapproving glares from all the other sopping-wet primates.

And here's where it gets even more interesting.

Let another of the original monkeys out, and replace it with another new and hungry monkey. Repeat water-cannon drill. Keep doing this, and pretty soon, you won't even need a water cannon, because before any new monkey reaches for the bananas, it'll be accosted by its peers, who will have learned that no matter who reaches for the bananas, everyone gets wet.

And of course, no self-respecting monkey wants to get wet.

So what you'll end up with after some time is a cage full of famished monkeys who refuse to touch the perfectly good bananas in front of them. They'll even police the actions of their peers, in order not to upset the apple cart (or banana cart as the case may be).

Of course, not all monkeys are afraid of getting wet, but it's a nice little parable nonetheless, which arguably has implications far beyond the hallowed halls of academia...