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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Monkey See, Monkey Do

A scientific study* was done in the 1960s that demonstrates how easily any of us can find ourselves trapped in traditional thoughts and actions that make no sense but are so embedded in us that we don't even think to question them. Although the study was performed with monkeys, sadly the underlying result often manifests itself in human beliefs and behavior.

Five monkeys were placed in a cage together and a ladder was placed in the middle of the cage. On the top of the ladder was a bunch of bananas. Every time a monkey started to climb the ladder to get the bananas, the researchers would hose down the rest of the monkeys with cold water. It didn't take long until every time any monkey tried to go up the ladder, the others would beat him up. After a while, no monkey dared to try to go up the ladder.

The scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys. When they put the new monkey into the cage, the first thing he did was to try to climb the ladder. Of course, the others beat him up. After a few beatings, he learned not to try to climb the ladder.

Then a second monkey was placed into the cage and the same thing happened. He went straight for the ladder and the others attacked him. Interestingly, even the first monkey participated in the beating even though he had never been sprayed with the cold water. A third monkey was switched with one of the original five and the same thing happened. Then a fourth and finally the last original monkey was replaced with the fifth replacement.

So, in the end, there were five monkeys in the cage and none of them had ever been soaked with the cold water. Yet they still would beat up any monkey that tried to climb the ladder.

What was the rationale behind the action of these monkeys? Since none of them had been sprayed with water, why did they all act so illogically? The answer is "indoctrination." Each of them, when introduced to the group, had been indoctrinated to behave the way the rest did. The new monkey didn't know why. He just beat up the monkey trying to go up the ladder because that's what he had learned was the appropriate thing to do.

This same kind of indoctrination has happened in shaping the thoughts and actions of many people today who would identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. The interesting thing is that the One they want to follow didn't fall into the "monkey see, monkey do" syndrome. To the contrary, He bucked the system so much that it ended up provoking people to kill Him.

To take a contrarian position simply for the sake of being a contrarian is wrong. There is no value in trying to go against "the system" just for the sake of being different. In fact, it's often pride that causes a person to do that.

On the other hand, it's equally as wrong to accept viewpoints and practices simply because others do. This kind of "group think" has led to great atrocities throughout history. The history of the church has not escaped the damage this kind of indoctrination can cause. I suspect that there are many sacred cows that have been embraced as sacred doctrine in the church today because of this sort of group indoctrination. They need to die.

While it is unwise and unhealthy to become a belligerent skeptic who challenges everything from a knee-jerk reaction, it is important to ask yourself why you believe what you believe. The process of maturing in any area of our lives necessitates that we change. Not change for the sake of change, but a kind of change that comes with any growing thing.

Don't be afraid to ask "why?" Truth is eternal and can withstand scrutiny. Avoid any environment where your questions are squelched by authority or peer pressure. None of us have a perfectly clear understanding of anything. We are all on a journey. Let's not beat up those who try to climb the ladder just because we've learned to do it that way. We aren't monkeys. We bear the image of our Creator. Let us refuse to become indoctrinated into a static system and instead spend our lives exploring the dynamic reality of discovering more and more of what it means to live in the Divine Life that embraces us.

*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.


  1. God has taught me to ask questions which provoke thought. I like to challenge God and He never disappoints me. I feel like I'm the one with the monkeys on his back taking them up with me to the bananas. God has put on the helmet (who is Jesus) of salvation which even I can not take off. Not by my faith but the faith of Jesus who reigns forever and ever.

  2. Amazing and so insightful !

  3. My nuggets that I want to reflect on and take away are: "It is important to ask yourself why you believe what you believe. Truth is eternal and can withstand scrutiny."

    God is ALIVE and real and I am glad that I am done with the monkey game! Be real. Be authentic. Love God and His People!!!

    Thank You for sharing. May God give me the courage and the strength to not be a monkey and follow HIM!

  4. To put on and have the mind of Christ knowing who we are according to all spiritual language of the New Testament, we are partnering in the Gospel with Christ's life giving principle and cannot take off the helmet God gives of salvation definitely which is Jesus! Knowing God's love better each day helps. Spontaneously we outlive the wooing and the willing of God's good pleasure. Glory to God! (I'm bananas for Jesus.) Great blog. Dave C.

  5. What a great truth! We should let Christ be expressed rather than being confined to the environment that oppress us.