The Importance of “Why?”
During the intermission of Neil Ford’s “10 Ways to Improve Your Code” presentation (watch on InfoQ), he told a story about the dangers of learned behavior and the importance of questioning authority. The story is applicable not only developers and designers, but to anyone who enjoys thinking of new ideas… including monkeys…
Neil’s story was about a psychology experiment performed on five monkeys:
Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, you’ll see a banana hanging on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, all of the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water.
After a while, another monkey makes an attempt to obtain the banana. As soon as his foot touches the stairs, all of the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. It’s not long before all of the other monkeys try to prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.
Now, put away the cold water, remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him as he makes his way toward the stairs. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.
Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.
Text taken from sageconcepts.
What would a caged monkey reply if you were to ask it why they punished the new monkey for reaching for the bananas? The reply would most likely be “because that’s the way it has always been done.”
We encounter learned behaviors everyday: processes, procedures, policies, best practices, design patterns, standards, etc. These are behaviors that hold value by keeping us away from harm.
…but over time our environments change. Only by challenging our old assumptions and asking “Why?” will we ever develop new ideas and reach the bananas in life.