The Monkey Experiment and Edgar Schein

One of many “funny” emails floating around the internet contained the story of the monkey, banana and water spray experiment.  I was pretty sure it was true (because I’ve seen it happen – but not with monkeys), but I wanted to source it anyway.

monkey_eat_banana_lg_clrSo I went to to check it out (see the story below).  Indeed, the experiment took place in 1967 and has been a standard in psychology to explain “mob behavior“.

But let’s take it to the topic of organizational culture. Edgar Schein talks about the “unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings.  The ultimate source of values and action.” (Schein, 2004) This is the part that you see but it is difficult to understand “the why”.  Often, these assumptions conflict with the “artifacts” and “values” that are talked about and written on posters and intranets.

A practical example.  A healthcare organization is exceedingly proud of their strong culture of caring for patients.  Everything from their new employee orientation to their performance management program focus on caring, quality and speaking up when they saw something wrong.

But several years ago, a new nurse just out of orientation publicly corrected a physician and was publicly “flogged”.  That nurse became a mentor to several other nurses, and quickly explained that what they learned in orientation about speaking up was erroneous, and they would actually be subject to discipline if they challenged a physician or a more senior nurse.

Year after year, the unspoken rule is handed down, and the energy and excitement of hearing the values at orientation gives way to cynicism and silence.

Does this really happen?  You betcha!

What do to?  The answer isn’t really difficult, but it takes courage to execute.  The answer lies in asking good questions, observing behavior and understanding what those underlying assumptions are.  And here’s the key….once that is known, leadership has to make change to bring the artifacts and values in line with the assumptions.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it.  So why don’t more organizations do this?

“Did the monkey banana and water spray experiment ever take place?

The Monkey Banana and Water Spray Experiment The experiment is real (scientific study cited below). This experiment involved 5 monkeys (10 altogether, including replacements), a cage, a banana, a ladder and, an ice cold water hose.

The Experiment- Part 1
5 monkeys are locked in a cage, a banana was hung from the ceiling and a ladder was placed right underneath it.
As predicted, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, to grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the researcher would spray the monkey with ice-cold water.
but here’s the kicker- In addition, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

When a second monkey tried to climb the ladder, the researcher would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, As well as the other four watching monkeys;
This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson
Climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE so No One Climbs the ladder.

The Experiment- Part 2
Once the 5 monkeys knew the drill, the researcher replaced one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. BUT, the other four monkeys, knowing the drill, jumped on the new monkey and beat him up. The beat up new guy thus Learns- NO going for the ladder and No Banana Period- without even knowing why! and also without ever being sprayed with water!

These actions get repeated with 3 more times, with a new monkey each time and ASTONISHINGLY each new monkey- who had never received the cold-water Spray himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), would Join the beating up of the New guy.

This is a classic example of Mob Mentality- bystanders and outsiders uninvolved with the fight- join in ‘just because’.

When the researcher replaced a third monkey, the same thing happened; likewise for the fourth until, eventually, all the monkeys had been replaced and none of the original ones are left in the cage (that had been sprayed by water).

The Experiment- Part 3
Again, a new monkey was introduced into the cage. It ran toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. The monkey turns with a curious face asking “why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?”
The other four monkeys stopped and looked at each other puzzled (None of them had been sprayed and so they really had no clue why the new guy can’t get the banana) but it didn’t matter, it was too late, the rules had been set. And So, although they didn’t know WHY, they beat up the monkey just because ” that’s the way we do things around here”…

Well, it seems to be true; not in the exact shape that it took here, but close enough,

Below is a quotation from the experiment, in scientific Jargon: (sources cited below)

“Stephenson (1967) trained adult male and female rhesus monkeys to avoid manipulating an object and then placed individual naïve animals in a cage with a trained individual of the same age and sex and the object in question. In one case, a trained male actually pulled his naïve partner away from the previously punished manipulandum during their period of interaction, whereas the other two trained males exhibited what were described as “threat facial expressions while in a fear posture” when a naïve animal approached the manipulandum. When placed alone in the cage with the novel object, naïve males that had been paired with trained males showed greatly reduced manipulation of the training object in comparison with controls. Unfortunately, training and testing were not carried out using a discrimination procedure so the nature of the transmitted information cannot be determined, but the data are of considerable interest.”

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.

Mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88:”


Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, Jossey Bass, pp. 26.

Animated monkey from 




Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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