The five monkeys thought experiment

4:08 pm General

The (probably apocryphal) five monkeys experiment goes like this:

Five monkeys are placed in a cage. There is a lever, which, if pulled, delivers food. The monkeys soon learn how it works, and regularly pull the lever.

One day, when the lever is pulled, food is still delivered to the puller, but all the monkeys in the cage get an ice-cold shower for a period of time. The monkeys quickly learn the correlation between the lever and the cold shower, and stop any monkey from getting to the lever.

After a while, one of the monkeys is removed, and replaced by a new monkey. Out of curiosity, the new monkey tried to pull the lever, and was beaten into submission by the other monkeys. Progressively, more of the original five monkeys are removed, and replaced with new monkeys, and they all learn the social rule – if you try to pull the lever, the group will stop you.

Eventually, all of the original monkeys are gone. At this point, you can turn off the shower, secure in the knowledge that none of the monkeys will pull the lever, without ever knowing what will happen if they do.

A funny anecdote, right? A lesson for anyone who ever thinks “because that’s the way it has always been”.

And yet, there are a significant number of things in modern society that are the way they are because at one point in time, there was some constraint that applied, which no longer applies in the world of air travel and computers. I got thinking about this because of the electoral college and the constitutional delays between the November election and the January inauguration of a new president – a system that exists to get around the logistical constraints of having to travelling distances on horseback. But that is far from the only example.

This is a series, covering each of the examples I have found, and hopefully uncovering others along the way, and the electoral college will be one of them. First up, though, will be the Summer school vacation.

  1. Summer vacations
  2. QWERTY keyboards
  3. Railway gauges
  4. The Electoral College

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