Hà Nội Scribbles

Writing & Living in Hanoi, Vietnam

Cast adrift on a sea of troubles

Does history repeat itself? Do we never learn lessons?

Is it part of the human condition to find ourselves in the same situations over and over yet make identical mistakes?

Why do we repeat behaviour we know from past experience to be destructive and ill-advised?
sunset over the rice paddies

The answer is that while the cast might change, the learned behaviour doesn’t. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are hostage to our learned behaviour which often disguises itself as gut instinct.

A case in point is that of the 10 monkey conditioning experiment. I am assuming this story is apocryphal. But who knows?

So, there is this large enclosure that is to be home to ten monkeys. In the corner, there is a ladder up to a platform. On the platform is a bunch of bananas.

The ten monkeys are placed in the enclosure. They explore and after a short time, they spot the bananas. As the first monkey sets foot on the ladder the overhead sprinkler system is activated. The monkeys get drenched with cold water.

The bananas get forgotten about until they dry off. Monkeys do not like getting wet. Eventually, one of their number decides he wants a banana and again steps onto the ladder with inevitable consequences. After getting soaked three times any monkey making his way to the ladder gets seven shades knocked out of him by the others.

There is, then, in a short space of time an unwritten rule that no one goes near the ladder without incurring the wrath of the others.

The next day the zookeepers take one of the ten monkeys out and replaces her with a new monkey who has never been in the enclosure before. Within minutes she is wondering why she got beat up for going near the ladder. For her own safety, she decides to comply with the convention.

Another new monkey is introduced the following day. Inevitably this one soon gets a good kicking from the eight original monkeys and the other introduced monkey.

The same pattern happens each of the subsequent days until eventually all of the original monkeys have been replaced. The by now rather ripe bananas are still unmolested and none of the monkeys knows what happens when the ladder is climbed. Custom and practice is that you don’t go near the ladder because that’s the way things have always been.

Maybe, then, we aren’t trapped in a matrix-like computer simulation after all. Perhaps we are trapped in a primate enclosure controlled by sadistic power-crazed zookeepers. Neither, frankly, is very appealing.

Do you agree? Let me know now

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