On Social Norms, Rules, and Regulations

All great truths begin as blasphemies.

George Bernard Shaw

Let me start with the proverbial “Five Monkeys” story.

Five Monkeys

Start with a cage of five monkeys. Inside the cage, there is a banana hanging from the ceiling and a ladder placed under it. Before long, a monkey would go to the ladder and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the ladder, he and all of the other monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt to reach the banana.  Again, as soon as he touches the stairs, all the monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water. This is repeated again and again until the monkeys learned their lesson: climbing results in ice-cold water for everyone, so no one climbs the ladder.

Now, turn off the cold water, remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and tries to climb the ladder. The other four monkeys know the drill with ice-cold water, and attack him as he makes his way toward the ladder.  After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the ladder and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment. Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the ladder, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the ladder or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

Finally, replace the last of the original monkeys, with a new one. He runs toward the ladder only to get beaten up by the others. However, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with ice-cold water. So why did they attack the newcomer? Because that’s the way we do things around here!

Is the Water On or Off?

Usually this story is told as an illustration of mob mentality, ridiculous nature of many social norms, government and corporate policies, etc.

My biggest issue with the above interpretation is that it completely relies on the stipulation that the ice-cold water has been turned off, which is impossible to painlessly verify for monkeys within the cage. In fact, if the water has not been turned off, then allowing a new monkey to climb the ladder would result in pain and suffering for all monkeys. Then beating up a newcomer is completely rational, and is for the overall benefit of their five-monkey society. On the other hand, if the water has been turned off, then, to an outside observer, the monkey behavior would seem cruel as well as completely irrational.

Now what would be the most logical assumption whether the cold water is on or off to anyone observing the cage? All monkeys have been sprayed with cold water every time one of them touched the ladder. Given, that may not be the case next time, but it is most logical to assume that the water is still on. It is no wonder that the monkeys have no desire to test this assumption again.

Five Monkeys and Social Norms

If we think of the “Five Monkeys” story as an allegory of evolution of social norms in real life, we would interpret social norms as rational and logical developments in response to a particular set of adverse outcomes to society. Such norms improve overall welfare of society by preventing harmful behavior or rewarding the beneficial one. Indeed, assuming the water is on, it is to everyone’s benefit that no monkey goes after the banana.

Now let’s consider the consequences of breaking social norms in the context of the “Five Monkeys” story. Suppose that the fifth new monkey has a rebellious streak, and he only pretends for a while to play by the other monkeys’ rules. Then at an opportune moment, he makes a dash for the banana, manages to evade the other monkeys, and gets to the ladder…

If the water is on, all monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water, and the rebellious monkey looks like a scoundrel and a jackass to the rest. The other four monkeys look smart as guardians of “good old ways”, and may even beat or ostracize the scoundrel afterwards.

If the water is off, the rebellious monkey gets the banana, and he becomes a hero to the rest. The other four monkeys look stupid for following an obsolete pattern of behavior. That’s usually how paradigm shifts happen in society and in science. These are the stories of the likes of Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus, Joan of Arc, Nicolaus Copernicus, Nikolai Lobachevsky, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

Notice how the same action may lead to two completely opposite outcomes depending on an unobservable variable whether the water is on or off. Similarly, in real life, it could be unclear of what the rationale was for a social norm to evolve, and whether that rationale is still valid.

I have nothing in principal against social norms, rules, and regulations – in most cases they evolved to make our lives better in response to a particular behavior pattern causing harm to society. However, I would argue not to blindly follow the norms, but to reverse engineer the historical rationale behind them, further examining if these reasons are still relevant nowadays.  There is no shame in trying to break obsolete social norms and conventions. In fact, that is how the greatest discoveries and breakthroughs have been made. There is also a chance of looking like an ill-behaved scoundrel, but in the end, it may be better trying and failing, than not trying at all. After all, just testing if the water is still on is a valuable effort in the “Five Monkeys” context…


P.S. I doubt that the “Five Monkeys” story is literally true, but there are experiments that are reasonably close to the spirit of the story. See

Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88.

Read more at http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Did_the_monkey_banana_and_water_spray_experiment_ever_take_place

P.P.S. The “Five Monkeys” story description is partially borrowed from descriptions at http://www.sageconcepts.com/5-monkeys-and-a-cage and http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Did_the_monkey_banana_and_water_spray_experiment_ever_take_place