Don’t climb that ladder

By skepticlawyer

A real life study: Stephenson, G. R. (1967). ‘Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys.’ In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

[A gentle tip of the hat to Terje P]


Also: our viewing stats have gone fairly silly since Larvatus Prodeo voluntarily wound itself up, and I’m reasonably sure there’s a connection. However, apart from a couple of you, none of the new people are commenting… so, seriously, we don’t bite. We must be in fairly intense competition with Club Troppo for the most civil blog in Ozblogistan (and beyond). Insert customary joke about the Pymble Pony Club, now.

We are rather eclectic in our tastes, but if there’s something that you really want to write about (or want us to write about), drop it in one of the chit-chat threads, or leave it here.


  1. Posted May 4, 2012 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Hmmm…. seems to share quite a bit with the infamous Milgram experiments, or the audience-pressure in “The Game of Death” TV show (

  2. Posted May 4, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    It’s called an inability to adjust to change I suppose. This depiction of monkey behaviour is very sobering. Yet it seems to me it happens all the time. I think of Gina Perry’s new book on the Milgram experiment on people’s ready response to authority as if we have no minds of our own. Though of course we are communal and deeply influenced by one another, but to this degree? I still find it disturbing.

  3. Posted May 4, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    That last slide makes me think the message is that there is *some* good reason for inane / violent / harmful traditions, when really I think the message should be that traditions are perpetuated without question.

    What if the experimenters ceased to shower the other (all new) monkeys in cold water, how long would it take before the batch of monkeys begin to ascend the ladder again? What difference would it make if the knowledge of why one mustn’t ascend the ladder could be passed on through literature?

  4. Posted May 4, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I think that’s the point, oanh – the scientists didn’t shower the new monkeys in cold water, but by then the monkeys had ‘learned’ not to climb the ladder, and so no more showers were needed – a pointless rule then perpetuated itself down the generations.

  5. Patrick
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I don’t get why the Milgram are controversial, I would have been flabbergasted if the results had been different.

    I don’t think, however, that this is the same thing at all.

  6. cbp
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I think it is telling that we can draw an analogy between monkey behaviour and human behaviour, despite human beings supposedly having vastly superior powers of reason and self awareness.

  7. Posted May 4, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Disturbing indeed, Elizabeth, that it was necessary to experiment unpleasantly on imprisoned non-human animals, when even the most superficial observation of imprisoned human behaviour shows exactly the same response. Collective punishment of prisoners has long been the main control method. All it indicates is that we’re animals that evolved under similar circumstances to the monkeys.
    It is patently insane to experiment on species that have been reared artificially and are kept as prisoners. In ‘the wild’, animals respond quite differently, as we can see from Australia’s involvement in the collective punishment of societies that irritate the U.S.A.. Far from punishing their rebels, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, to name only the most recent examples of our policy of pre-emptive aggression, loathe and despise us and will do all that is possible to destroy us as we are destroying them. Men whose immediate families have been wiped out willingly become suicide bombers, encouraged by their wider families.
    The urge to be free is more powerful than anything our sadistic, ghoulish governments can quell.

  8. Robbie
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Seeing as you asked so nicely 🙂

    Working with a bunch of accountants I get to see this in action daily. “Look on the file and see what we did last year” seems to be the answer to most questions. Then you get the rare accountant who asks “why?” and is promptly beaten up by his fellow mon accountants

  9. conrad
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    “I don’t get why the Milgram are controversial, I would have been flabbergasted if the results had been different.”

    That’s because of when you were born. Try subtracting 30 years and then think what the average person might have thought.

  10. Posted May 4, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Yes, I agree, SL. But my concern is: the last slide suggests (to me, anyway; perhaps it does not to you) that we shouldn’t question why the rule exists just because we don’t know. The new batch of monkeys don’t know the reason, but there is a good historical reason – that’s how the whole thing ends. That last slide seems to be saying – Do you know someone who is questioning a pointless rule? Well, there are reasons for pointless rules, even if you don’t know what they are. Stop questioning. <- that's my concern.

    What I'm interested in: how long before someone questions, experiments and breaks the rules? Or are you saying, a conclusion that could be drawn from the experiment is that that may never happen? The learned behaviour is too strong to withstand the future maverick?

    I do think the experiment is very interesting; but I don't think it has to do with response to authority as such.

  11. Patrick
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I dunno conrad, the holocaust should have been closer to their memory!

  12. John H.
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Though of course we are communal and deeply influenced by one another, but to this degree? I still find it disturbing.

    It is one reason why I say we all have group think and could not think without it. Strictly speaking we do not have “minds of our own”, our minds are a result of the collective activity of our culture, history, and daily experience. One reason we celebrate genius is because geniuses often represent ways of thinking that are not so constrained by their culture and history. For the rest of us, we mostly just suck it up and continue along.

  13. Patrick
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Gee oanh you are the glass half-empty kind aren’t you!

  14. John H.
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Gee oanh you are the glass half-empty kind aren’t you!

    Seeking the truth is not seeking what is desirable!

    “This glass is half empty. This glass is half full. Either way you look at it, fool, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. Ever figure that?” …from ‘Augmenteer’, #3568.(Poet, Gary Introne)

  15. kvd
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I think this is probably complete crap.

    Another way for oanh to be more comfortable with the described experiment is to note that it was conducted by German researchers, blindly following some higher authority, engaging in the maltreatment of a group of primates, to prove a point of human behaviour which has been fairly obvious and commented upon for maybe a century or three.

  16. Ripples
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Robbie @ 8
    I have seen the same behaviour in legal offices too, also a similar level of nitpicking too

  17. Patrick
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    It is nothing to do with that though kvd, leaving aside whether it is right or not???

  18. kvd
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I don’t follow your point Patrick? Also, I find your “leaving aside whether it is right or not” to be a surprising attitude for a lawyer-type-person?

    I was simply attempting to be polite to oanh – who @10 expressed quite reasonable doubt about the last ‘slide’. Half the emails in my spam bucket end with “don’t miss the opportunity to share this with others”

    Of course, I could give you my alternate theory: that SL adequately researched this; knew it was suspect; thought it might be a good case study for her ‘Commenters, Advanced Gullibility about monkeys and bananas’ thesis 😉

  19. kvd
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Also, hands up any scientist reading who has had such a perfect result from – what? – 10 monkeys?

  20. John H.
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Animal behavior experiments, even when well designed, are poor indicators of human behavior. For example, one my favourite hates, Seligman and his dogs and “learned helplessness”. Time and again people use as a reference to the dangers of welfare yet the experiment has nothing to say about this. Moreover, the concept does not translate well when considering human behavior. Yet, from those simple experiments, another huge waste of psychological research resources has been created: Positive Psychology.

    At a broader level though the work of Sapolsky does highlight how much of our social behavior is mirrored in primates. And a few nights ago a friend of me told me about studies on bird and fish movements, why they are so synchronised. Turns out that in each case there are a group of experts recognised by the other members and they follow their lead. Sound familiar? Authority Fallacy anyone?

  21. Posted May 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink


    he collective punishment of societies that irritate the U.S.A.. Far from punishing their rebels, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, to name only the most recent examples of our policy of pre-emptive aggression, loathe and despise us and will do all that is possible to destroy us as we are destroying them.

    An impressive amount of foolishness and falsity in concentrated form.

    First, the two wars are quite different: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (recogised by almost no one) allowed itself to be used as a base for a murderous attack on another country. An act of war, indeed a casus belli, under any understanding of international law, which is why NATO responded as it did.

    Second, NATO forces are strongly preferred to the Taliban and support for their presence is still quite high, given the limited success in creating security.

    If you look at the Asia Foundation surveys, one finds the country that Afghans really dislike is Pakistan: presumably because it foisted the Taliban on them and remains the base for Taliban attacks. There is also strong support for democracy and a surprising amount of optimism for the future.

    Iraq is different in lots of ways, but the US an its allies are still very popular in the Kurdish parts of the country, for entirely understandable reasons, it being the one area where the intervention was a complete success (which is both cause and effect).

    Iraq was a mistake from the start (by which I mean 1919). It should never have been created as a single country, and certainly not as a Sunni monarchy. Exporting the Glorious Revolution to Iraq was not a success. Whether exporting the American Revolution to it will be, it is a bit hard to tell.

    Meanwhile, support for al-Qaeda in the Muslim world continues to fall.

    There are a whole lot of very open-to-debate issues about both wars, but they needed to be grounded in reality.

  22. kvd
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] that is fascinating about the bird and fish movements; any reference provided by your friend?

  23. John H.
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Did a quick check Lorenzo. The results were confusing and did not support my friend’s interpretation. Leaders may vary over time, there is the question of emergent properties, and even the suggestion that it is something like driving in traffic, we create internal rules to guide our behavior and so are “swept along” by the rest.

  24. Posted May 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I have been in an exam all morning, so not exactly around to comment. I’m hoping Terje turns up with his cows and bananas story … it’s an interesting illustration of the above 🙂

    In the meantime, I’m off for a wee nap.

  25. Rob B
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps you should apply some of your claimed skepticism towards your story. It’s funny, and I liked the cartoon but it’s not true. This story’s been bouncing around the interwebs for a while now.

    You cite the paper but apparently failed to read it, as did Terje, though it’s not surprising – libertarians always seem to be especially credulous for folk wisdom, hearsay and anecdotes.

    The Cliff’s notes version for the lazy:

    There were no bananas, the groups were pairs, the three females did not transmit information about the punishment (air blasts), two of the males did, and one of the males tried to have sex with the other monkey. As far as I can tell there were no second order transmission experiments carried i.e. two untrained monkeys, post transmission.

    In short be careful about trying to extrapolate monkey behaviour onto humans or your next team meeting at work could get awkward when you flash your bits at your colleagues.

    Here’s the reference:

  26. Posted May 5, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Rob, you should probably apply some of your claimed literacy to reading the rest of the thread, as kvd has already made your point @15.

    Do keep up, please.

  27. TerjeP
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    The Cow & Banana Story – by Terje

    On the farm growing up we had a similar experience with cows. When I was young we used to regularly take delivery of a load of spoilt green bananas. Hey the farm was near Coffs Harbour, famous for the big banana, so what do you expect. Anyway we fed the bananas to the cows who seemed to really like eating them. Whenever we had bananas Dad would call out “come on” to the cows who would come running with great urgency from miles away to feast on bananas. Over the years the “come on” call became more like a “comooooorn” bellow. At some point the banana deliveries stopped. However whilst other farmers sometimes had to round up the cattle with dogs or horses on our farm we could always just call them and the herd would come running to us at great speed like creatures possessed. This was true even after many years and after a complete generational change of the entire herd had transpired since the last of the banana days. It seems that cows follow cultural conventions just like the rest of us.

  28. kvd
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Yes. I think that’s why I married an Englishwoman. As a rule, the more certain of their position, the more civil the discourse. I admire that trait, tho’ often fail.

    This is in direct contrast to the inverse relationship displayed in internet commentary 😉

  29. kvd
    Posted May 5, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    [email protected] my above comment was sort of directed to SL’s not yours – but enough with the bananas already! Surely in responding to the call your cows were just exhibiting heard behavior.

    Years ago when my family lived on a five acre block surrounded by a large dairy farm the farmer insisted that his cows came into milking a) on time every day, twice a day, and b) in the exact same order of march. Given there were 150 cows I could never disprove this, but I can say that the first 10 were always the first 10, and always in the same order.

    pls forgive bad herd pun.

  30. Posted May 7, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Some didn’t get why Milgram was controversial.

    I doubt it was the results – there was a large natural experiment in northern Europe, Germany I think, over about a ten year stretch in the 1930’s/1940s that showed similar results.

    The controversy was the way in which the experiments were carried out. The “Game of Death” show on France is more surprising, I suppose, in that the “authority figure” had no power over the button-pusher’s life, being simply a TV announcer and audience.

    As to the perpetuation of stupid rules and processes – the maladaptive outcomes of formerly adaptive customs is pretty natural, and it often takes a correspondingly harsh shock to get rid of “tradition”. Tendencies towards Sky Fairy woo may once have strengthened in-group effectiveness by increasing out-group antipathy, but now, as everybody on the planet is in the same boat, woo is very maladaptive, creates group disadvantage.

    It’s almost the nature of any custom to have a weakness, a perverse incentive somewhere, and the weaknesses will probably be exacerbated over time – accumulation of errors. So, the party system of politics has been accumulating errors for a couple of centuries, and sooner or later, the maladaptions will outweigh the once-apparent advantages. You could say the same about capitalism which is, at the big end of town, mimicking the problems of having royal favorites jockeying for power, or nobles with large military forces the king could be threatened by having more power than the nominally absolute monarch.

    The perils of conservatism indeed.

  31. Rob B
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    @ skepticlawyer

    It took me all of a minute to find the actual source material you cited by right clicking your study and Googling. I think that’s worth posting. Especially when you make the claim “A Real Life Study” above the fold. Consider retracting the claim?

    Slow down SL. You’re posting faster than you can think.

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