Stories

Challenge all assumptions: Five monkey games by Bryan Johnson

There are five monkeys in a room, and there is a basket of bananas at the top of a ladder. The monkeys, of course, want to climb the ladder to get the bananas, but every time one tries, they are all sprayed with cold water. After a few times of being sprayed by cold water, the monkeys learn to not climb up the ladder to get the bananas. The experimenters then take one monkey out and put a new monkey in, and the new monkey sees a banana. He thinks, “Hey, I am going to grab a banana”, but when he tries to go up the ladder, the other monkeys grab him and pull him back. The experimenters systematically pull every monkey out, and now you have five new monkeys. Any time a new monkey comes in and tries to climb the ladder, they grab the monkey and pull it back, but none of the five have been sprayed by cold water.

Richard E. Nesbett wrote The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why He attributed his work to a Chinese student who said: “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” He goes on to quote him: “The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects.”


Shaping teams

Colonel Stas Preczewsky, coach of the army crew team at West Point a few years ago, faced a baffling problem. Through extensive testing he had determined the strengths and abilities of every rower on his team. He had measured each man’s power on ergometers and had composed crews in every possible combination in order to calculate each member’s contribution. He was able to rank his rowers objectively and precisely from best to worst. He then put the eight best in his varsity boat and the eight others, the weakest, in the junior varsity boat. The problem: the latter beat the varsity boat two-thirds of the time. The varsity boat was full of resentment over who was contributing most, while the junior varsity rowers, feeling they had nothing to lose, supported one another happily.

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