What Monkeys Teach Us about the Assumptions We Make

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Synopsis

The importance of challenging the assumptions we make routinely in our lives.

Here is an easy exercise that must be done in your head only. Do NOT use paper and pencil or a calculator. Try to add up the following numbers as quickly as you can. Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000. Now add 30. Add another 1000. Now add 20. Now add another 1000. Now add 10. What is the total?

Our confidence in our ability to add according to the way we were taught in base ten encourages us to process the information this way and jump to a conclusion. If your total is 5,000, then you are wrong. 96% of people who add these simple numbers get the wrong answer. The numbers are arranged in such a way to set people up to get the wrong answer when adding using base ten. The correct answer is 4,100.

Human nature is such that when we assume we know how to do something, we perform the act without much thought about the assumptions we make. History is replete with thousands of examples of what happens when people don't challenge assumptions.

Once we think we know how something should be done, we keep doing it, then we teach others to do it the same way, and they in turn teach others until eventually you reach a point where no one remembers why something is done a certain way but we keep doing it anyway. We tend to accept whatever explanation someone with experience tells us. This kind of thinking reminds me of herring gulls. Herring gulls have a drive to remove all red objects from their nest. They also have a drive to retrieve any egg that rolls away from the nest. If you place a red egg in the nest, when the gull returns she will push it out, then roll it back in, then push it out again, only to retrieve it once more.

This human behavior of not challenging assumptions reminds me of an experiment psychologists performed years ago. They started with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, they hung a banana on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. Before long, a monkey went to the stairs and started to climb towards the banana. As soon as he started up the stairs, the psychologists sprayed all of the other monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey made an attempt to obtain the banana.  As soon as his foot touched the stairs, all of the other monkeys were sprayed with ice cold water. It's wasn't long before all of the other monkeys would physically prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.

Now, the psychologists shut off the cold water, removed one monkey from the cage and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attacked him.  After another attempt and attack, he discovered that if he tried to climb the stairs, he would be assaulted. Next they removed another of the original five monkeys and replaced it with a new one. The newcomer went to the stairs and was attacked. The previous newcomer took part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, they replaced a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey tried to climb the stairs, he was attacked.

The monkeys had no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they were beating any monkey that tried. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been around here. People sometimes do the same in the workplace. How many times have you heard "It has always been done this way. Don't mess with what works." Instead of challenging these assumptions, many of us, like the monkeys, simply keep reproducing what has been done before. It's the easiest thing to do.

At a seminar, a participant told me a humorous story of where this kind of acceptance of assumptions can lead.  A quality management consultant was hired by a small English manufacturing company to advise them on improving general operating efficiency. The company produced a monthly report which dealt with various aspects of productivity. At the top-right corner of one form, there was a small box. The consultant noted that the figure '0' had been written in every such report for the past year. On questioning the members of the staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box, and when he asked them why they told him they were told do so by their supervisor. The supervisor told him he guessed it had to do with accidents but wasn't sure. It had always been "0" for the twenty-five years he had been there, so he continued the practice. It, too, was something he was told to do by his former supervisor.

The consultant could find no one in the company who could tell him what the box represented. Intrigued, he went to the warehouse where the company kept its archives to see what he could discover about the form. The company was founded in 1937 and the records were preserved all the way back to 1940. He found the old reports, he saw that the zero return had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended. Eventually, he found the box that catalogued all the originals of the forms the company had used during its history dating back to 1940. In it, he found the original report which was created in 1941, in pristine condition. In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown: 'Approximate number of hours of production lost due to air raids.'  Within a few months, the headline was edited and shortened and eventually disappeared for the sake of economy.


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Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://creativethinking.net/WP01_Home.htm



 

 

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