5 Monkeys, Bananas, Ladder, Water. Why do we comply with daft rules in organisations?

Question: Can you think of an organisation you have been part of, one where there is an unwritten rule that almost everyone complies with, and nobody really knows why?

This rule dictates how people behave and is often about stopping people doing something. The reasons why the ‘rule’ exist are unclear, and nobody can adequately explain the behaviour.

It is part of “the way things are done around here”. 

Information Governance, Data Sharing, IT Security.  Just to help you, here is a situation you might have experienced. You know the sort of thing “you are not allowed to read that very valuable information because it is on a WordPress Blog. There are ‘security issues’ with WordPress. The IT department will cut and paste the text into a word document and will email it to you …… it will be available in 10 working days”.

I’m not making this up, I have seen this happen in recent history. The justification is always some hazy requirement to comply with ‘IT security’ and is justified by referring to some terrible incident (usually not explained) that happened in the past.

I have occasionally (very unfairly, in dark moments of frustration) thought this sort of thing was down to some IT people, in some organisations, being more interested in job protection, the joy of sheer awkwardness and making everyone play by their rules; rather than treating the users as customers.

This was probably as a result of me watching too many episodes of The IT Crowd. I realise now I was very wrong, sorry.

 5 Monkeys and the Path to Enlightenment. I’m grateful to my friend Geof (an IT person) who helped me with my unjustified prejudice and pointed me at the 5 Monkey Experiments. This gives an explanation of why groups of people might do things (comply with rules) for reasons they don’t fully understand. There might be a good logical explanation for the behaviour, but it is buried in the mists of time. Way back in the ‘corporate memory’ if you like.

A quick way of explaining the 5 Monkeys Experiment is this graphic.

The text is also at the bottom of the post. If anyone has the original source for this I'd be grateful The text is also at the bottom of the post.
If anyone has the original source for this I’d be grateful


If you prefer here is a 90 second video of the 5 Monkeys experiment. However if you want an even better explanation, get Matt from Complex Care Wales to describe it – with full Kung Fu movements!

Detecting  5 Monkeys Behaviour? Does any behaviour that might fit the 5 Monkeys theory come to mind after those explanations? I’ve heard of a few over the years, and would be happy to add to this list:

  1. IT Security – the one above, WordPress poses a dangerous risk to security so we cannot let you read blogs….
  2. More IT Security – Skype is really dangerous. There are ‘security risks’ so you are not allowed to have a business meeting using Skype.
  3. Staff Surveys – “it’s all about 5 Monkeys Behaviour…..the reason why everyone is unhappy here is because of some terrible thing in the past. It’s nothing to do with the current regime.”
  4. ‘Signing The Book’ – my favourite example of this is an establishment (in Cardiff) where people who cycled or walked to work dutifully signed a special book. This practice (which only stopped in the 2000’s) dated back to the Second World War and was linked to an entitlement for extra canteen rations as part of the war effort. 50 plus years of compliance and signatures for absolutely no purpose.

Is this all too good to be true?  The 5 Monkeys Experiment does provide a very helpful to explain away some features of organisational life. There are plenty of examples of compliance with rules you cannot explain and behaviours that fit the 5 Monkeys model.

I am however just a bit sceptical.

Firstly because I’m not a monkey, and I don’t really like getting compared to what happened in a monkey experiment. Secondly, there is a bit of doubt about the experiment taking place as described. Have a read of this thread on the Skeptics Website which questions the source of the information. I’m hoping Matt from Complex Care Wales will zoom in at this point and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

Finally, despite my scepticism, I do like the metaphor it provides….if you spot a new colleague (new monkey) having their new ideas crushed by existing staff (being beaten up by the old monkeys), step in and tell them the 5 Monkeys Experiment story.

So, whats the PONT?

  1. People in organisations do comply with rules and behave in certain ways, without fully understanding the reasons why they are doing it.
  2. This can be for good useful reasons, or others that are not so useful. The key thing is to ask questions like, ‘why are we doing this?’
  3. The justification of ‘it’s the way we do things around here’ might just be because you are acting like a 5 Monkeys and ignoring the bananas for reasons that are no longer relevant.

Thanks again to Geof and Matt for prompting this post.

Sources: Skeptics Website http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/6828/was-the-experiment-with-five-monkeys-a-ladder-a-banana-and-a-water-spray-condu 

Here is the full test from the graphic - via the Skeptics Website Here is the full test from the graphic – via the Skeptics Website

Monkey image via: https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1559126132-9041b5233081?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&q=80&fm=jpg&crop=entropy&cs=tinysrgb&dl=cherylyn-ang-HjbzlmAcjDI-unsplash.jpg














About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

15 Responses

  1. Paul Taylor

    Great post..I think you should start a compendium of daft rules.

    Daftest I remember was in my first proper job in the civil service. The rule was that you couldn’t go more than 2.5 hours without having a tea break. This was in addition to normal scheduled breaks so I questioned why I had to have one. It added up to six breaks a day and constantly interrupted your work.

    “You’ve got to. We all do it – we have for years” said the supervisor. “Just get a cup of tea Paul”.

    “But what if I don’t want a cup of tea” I asked. “Well, just speak to some people in the kitchen. Show you’re willing” came the response.

    Eventually a union rep got involved as they said I was being disruptive. The explanation I got for the rule was incredible. The rep said the previous rep had established a rule of three tea breaks a day – this was over 5 years before. No-one had ever questioned it.

    I was told, in no uncertain terms, that taking any less than 6 breaks a day would be seen as non-compliance with “Tea Policy” (honestly) and would have to be reported to my supervisor.

    It’s one of my eternal regrets that I never asked to see the tea policy…

  2. johnpopham

    When I worked in local government I was forced to take 3 weeks off work at an incredibly busy time because I had built up so much (TOIL) Time off in Lieu that I didn’t want to take. If it had happened in the age of the internet, I would have just worked from home and kept on top of things. As that was not possible at the time, a number of projects I was leading went completely off the rails in the time I was absent

  3. A great post as always Chris and just in time for ‘zero voids at year end’…….it’s like the incessant itch in your foot……which was actually amputated years ago.

  4. Two things Chris – unwritten rules, good and bad, pervade all organisations. Some organisational ‘improvement’ techniques seek to unearth them, explore them and understand them based on what motivates us to do them. Only then can changes be made. Happy to share more on this if you’re interested – it was part of my masters dissertation about an FM outsourcing scenario in 2008.
    Secondly, here is the best version of the 5 monkeys story I have found to date – Jeff Bridges, as the US President, in an outtake of The Contender. I use it to teach with – superb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4vJ8l2NfIM

  5. HaHa! That five monkeys story always gets a good reaction. Some people (most people) try to understand the meaning underneath the story, and I could give you a long narrative analogy of why the objective description and ‘stupid monkeys’ works to convey a truth. A few other people, mainly researchers in psychology and primates, do get get their arses in their hands about some of the facts of the story.

    The actual experiments, which took place in the 60s amidst the early years of cognitive science, focused on ‘conditioning stimuli’ and weren’t by current standards, particularly sophisticated. I think it’s fair to say that some of the facts in the popular incarnations of the experiment, have been subject to the story teller’s art. For example, the monkeys were subjected to an air blast, not soaked in cold water. There has also been a range of experiments stretching from the early 20s to present, looking at conditioning stimuli in monkeys, chimps and birds and yes, there is definitely, a socially embedded transference of behavioural patterns from conditioned stimulus.

    Whether you choose to see the analogy or the experiment, I think it’s critical that you don’t miss the most interesting little gem hidden amongst the blather. The new monkeys became frightened of things that the old monkeys were fearful of, without ‘knowing’ why. But equally the new monkeys quickly learned from old monkeys how to be comfortable with scary stimuli (like snakes). Here’s the nugget … The responses were markedly different between groups of male and female subjects!

    I haven’t read it myself, but I’m told that ‘The Games Primates Play’ is interesting, if monkey psychology floats your boat.

  6. […] Key to Social Practice Theory is the idea behaviour within the group is unconscious, something group members do automatically. Conforming with the ‘rules’, is performed unconsciously. We can choose to behave differently (reflective thinking), but it’s not that easy. Some social practices can have powerful influence on individual and group behaviours. I’ve previously touched on this idea in the Monkeys, Bananas and Complying with Daft Rules post. […]

  7. Elias

    I remember the story of a young woman who moved out from home into her own apartment. When her mother came for a visit she prepared the chicken for diner, took it out of the freezer to let it defrost in the sink.
    When her mother came in, she saw the chicken in the sink within a big sieve and with a pot full of water standing on the sieve.
    Bewildered of this method of defrosting the chicken, she asked her daughter, why she made it so.
    The daughter was now astonished too, and answered: “But Mom, that’s how YOU always defrost the chicken!” – Her mother started to laugh and answered: “Yes, I do, but YOU don’t have a cat here!”

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