Social norms: conscious choice or unconscious ancestor worship?

May 25, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

Let’s do a thought experiment.  Start with a cage containing five monkeys.  Inside the cage, hang some bananas by a string from the ceiling and place a ladder underneath it.  Before long, one of the monkeys will go to the ladder and try to climb towards the bananas.  As soon as it touches the ladder, spray all of the monkeys with cold water. 

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result: all of the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.  Pretty soon, when any monkey tries to touch the ladder, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water.  Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the bananas and wants to climb the ladder.  To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.  After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one.  The newcomer goes to the ladder and is attacked.  The previous newcomer takes part in the attack with enthusiasm — he wants to be part of the group!

Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, and then the fifth.  Every time the newest monkey goes to the ladder, he is attacked.  Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the ladder or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys has ever been sprayed with cold water.  Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the ladder to try for the bananas.  Why not?  Because as far as they know that’s the way it has always been done around here.

And that, my friends, is how social norms are created. 

When I first heard this amusing, apocryphal story, it was being used to explain how company policies get created.  However, the story obviously has much wider application.  For example, I think about this story whenever I hear about the so-called “Puritan work ethic” in America:  Americans working so hard that they don’t have the time or energy to enjoy the fruits of their labors.  I also think about it when I hear Americans talking about our “high standard of living,” even though we get (for example) far less vacation time and far fewer benefits than do our European colleagues.  Case in point:  I once worked for an American company in which its US-based senior executives received less annual vacation time than the *entry level* factory workers and secretaries in the company’s European plants.  And, most curiously, neither group seemed to question the practice.

Likewise, Americans seem to take for granted all sorts of beliefs and behaviors, often without question.  Why, for example, don’t Americans turn off their car engines at long traffic lights to save gas, as drivers do in Europe?  Why are American cities designed for cars, while European cities are designed for pedestrians and mass transit?  Why do American department stores put women’s lingerie in a back corner or on an upper floor, while European department stores put it prominently inside the front entrance?  Why do nearly all stores organize clothing with the smallest sizes on the top-most shelves (where short people cannot reach) and the largest sizes on the bottom-most shelves (where tall people must stoop)?  Why do Americans consider bicycles to be children’s toys, while Europeans see them as practical transportation vehicles?  Why does the American military ban homosexuals, but not convicted felons, from serving their country?  Why has America failed to adopt the metric system when even Great Britain (which created America’s inches, pints and pounds) has already done so?  Why do Americans calmly accept virtually unlimited gratuitous violence on television, but react with outrage and disgust at the smallest hint of nudity?  Why do Americans warehouse prison inmates on a military (rather than an educational) model, when all available evidence shows that it does not produce rehabilitation?  (Indeed, why do Americans cut government funding for student financial aid, but then spend even more money on prisons for people who lack educational opportunities?)  Why do Americans believe nationwide healthcare coverage (so-called “socialized medicine”) is a horrible idea, while Europeans would never think of giving it up?  The list goes on and on.

 Surely, some of these behaviors are caused by practical considerations — the lower price of gasoline in America compared to Europe or the vast lobbying power of the American Medical Association — but to a very great extent the social norms we see today (in every culture around the globe) are merely the result of choices made by people who died hundreds (even thousands) of years ago.  Obviously, some choices are insignificant (e.g., Americans drive on the right, Brits drive on the left), but some could have far-reaching consequences (e.g., crashing an expensive space probe because navigation calculations were wrongly assumed to use metric units). 

The point of this essay is not (necessarily) to campaign for longer vacations, greater use of bicycles, or more nudity on television in America; it is to alert you to the fact that we are all (to some extent) monkeys in a cage.  Thus, each of us has a choice:  we can automatically attack our fellow cage-mates because of some archaic belief or social norm that we’ve never questioned; or, instead, we can be willing to challenge the status quo so that we, and our fellow monkeys, can all enjoy a nice bunch of bananas.  Whichever you choose, just remember:  your choice will help determine what tomorrow’s monkeys do in their cage.


Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Current Events, Economy, Good and Evil, Humor, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (5)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Why are we so likely to repeat unproductive/destructive behaviors? Cognitive science might shed some light here.

    The availability heuristic is “nothing more than a strong disposition to make judgments or evaluations in light of the first thing that comes to mind (or is ‘available’ to the mind).” The availability heuristic can be misleading, however, because it is especially prone to attentional manipulation. Jobless people estimate unemployment rates to be higher than do the employed. When we think of problems with relatives, our OWN relatives come to mind. People assume that more words have R or K as their first letter, than as the third letter, because words beginning with R or K are easier to recall spontaneously (in actuality, more words have r or k as the third letter than the first).

    What's the more readily available measurement system? Not the metric system! What would you expect more of on American television, a place where unlimited gratuitous violence has reigned for decades. We're simply not used to seeing nipples on free TV, so many people considered Janet Jackson's nipple to be seriously out of place (I'm told that that viewing that nipple seriously damaged our youngsters. I'm still waiting to hear of the final body count). And what do you think of doing to someone who has committed crime in America? Throw him in prison, of course! It just take too much mental energy to think of or implement a new approaches. The availability heuristic is at it again.

    So why might people continue to reach for the failed strategies of the past? Maybe it's the same reason they climb mountains. Because they are THERE. Such strategies are more available than that strategy that you haven't bothered to sit down and think through yet. "That's how we do things around here," sounds like a reason to many people. Stare decisis, which many people consider to be the very engine of legal reasoning, is essentially the strategy of resolving a legal dispute in a particular way merely because some other court resolved a previous case in a similar manner. Just be glad that your dentist doesn't use stare decisis–it would compel her to use those state of the art dentistry methods from 1823 because that's the way it is done!

    Consider, also, the phenomenon of "acquiescence,": When we are faced with a “reasonable formulation of a problem involving choice, we accept it in the terms in which it is formulated and do not seek an alternative form . . . we become prisoners of the frame we are offered.” (See M.P. Palmarini, Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason rule Our Minds, p. 122 (1994)). This move has real life consequences. Even among highly educated doctors, teachers and engineers, “When someone is convinced of a positive correlation (even a false one) that person will always find new confirmations and justify why it should be so.” The "confirmation bias" has a similar effect. The confirmation bias consists of the tendency to “seek out evidence which confirms rather than contradicts current beliefs . . .” See The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, by Scott Plous (1993).

    My point is that continuing to do things in questionable ways because we've done them that way before is what you should expect whenever you are dealing with human animals whose minds are essentially big bags of simple tricks, some of them rigged with vulnerabilities, especially given our heavy reliance on heuristics to navigate our environments.

    It takes a lot of effort to think outside of the box, especially given that we're so highly distracted as a result of the chaotic environment we've designed for ourselves.

  2. Sujay says:

    Great posts Erich and grumpypilgrim!

    This is particularly stark in my country (India) where rites and rituals abound. I for instance am born into the 'Brahman' caste. After a special 'ceremony' (where we are expected to do rituals which make sense to no one today, including the ordaining priest) people in this caste are expected to perform a ritual called 'Sandhyavadan' three times a day for the rest of their lives (I couldn't manage for more than 3 months). It basically consists of chanting verses in Sanskrit (a language we do not understand). And everytime I've asked why we must chant verses we do not understand, the answer has always been 'to preserve tradition'.

    Similarly, every religious verse in my country is uttered in Sanskrit, as though it is the only language the gods understand. I sometimes wonder if everything done here, right from getting a job, to marrying, and having children is done just because 'tradition' demands it.

    There are those who claim that such traditions help us 'keep in touch with our roots and preserve our identity'. Fine, but do we have to rely on such arcane customs to do this?

    These are just excuses to justify our crippling dependance on social norms, which in turn reflect laziness to think for oneself.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Sujay's comment reminds me of the time I attended a 'high mass" Catholic wedding, complete with a monk chanting in Latin and enough candles to decorate a birthday cake for Moses. The ceremony lasted more than three hours, for what a justice-of-the-peace could have easily done in a few minutes. I could not help but wonder who the ceremony was supposed to be "for." God? Jesus? Mary? The happy couple? The assembled guests? The Catholic church hierarchy?

    Ceremony — a particular type of social norm — appears to be something unique to humans…and yet is it? Nearly every animal I can think of has its own mating rituals — peacocks fanning tails, rams knocking heads, bower birds building colorful nests, etc. We think of these behaviors as instincts, and they probably are, yet how similar they are to our own ceremonial activities. The only real difference appears to be that we do them at least partly by choice. They really are odd behaviors, though.

    Thinking about the Catholic wedding, I cannot help but think how much such religious ceremonies are little more than a contrived mechanism for the church to establish and maintain social control and power. Birth, marriage and death — the three landmarks in most everyones' life — and the church has church-controlled ceremonies for each one. Along the way, there are intermediate church-controlled ceremonies — confirmation, communion, confession, etc. What better way to manufacture power than by setting oneself up as gatekeeper over activities that are inherent to human life?

    Meanwhile, other organizations have their own ceremonies. Fraternities (both the college type and groups like the Freemasons) have their activations; militaries have their boot camps; nations have their fireworks and parades; colleges have their graduations…I wonder how much money is spent every year around the world on such ritual ceremonies.

    Yet, ritual ceremonies clearly serve a function. One of the first things that leaders of a revolution do after they overthrow a country is to create a new flag and anthem, specifically for the purpose of nation-building. Corporations have logos, mission statements, and carefully-orchestrated annual shareholder meetings; some even have their own anthems. Birthday parties, bachelorette parties, St. Patrick's Day, May Day, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace…all have relatively well-defined norms.

    Indeed, were we to suddenly erase the norms and ceremonies of the many different cultures around the world, what would remain to distinguish them?

  4. Sujay says:

    Great post again grumpypilgrim!

    Yes indeed, most animals (including human animals) do seem to have a need for these rituals. And perhaps it is more than just wanting to be "part of the group". Perhaps humans have an inherent need to be part of a pattern or system, which they feel is larger than their lives. In the absence of these rites, they are just left with what they percieve to be their boring lives. I suppose these rituals, when fit into the larger framework of religion, makes them feel that they are doing something important. We all feel a need to dwell in concepts larger than the mundane ones that we deal with in everyday life. Perhaps these religious rituals is their way of expressing their quest to attain comprehensive meaning. They don't exactly understand what they are doing… But they feel that they are doing something important, something divine….

    Hence, I can now understand the appeal of having these rituals in a language you don't understand. When these rituals are so far removed from what you do in everyday life (even in terms of language!), you probably feel that it must be really important, and really effective…

  5. magician says:

    Is this a thought experiment? I have heard several mentions of this experiment before and most of those say this is a "famous" experiment. I've looked for sources but have never found any. If this original idea is a thought experiment, that would explain a lot. Do anyone have sources?

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