The Great Failure Experiment

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I love the illustration John Maxwell uses about failure in his book Failing Forward (p. 47-48),

Four monkeys were placed in a room that had a tall pole in the center. Suspended from the top of that pole was a bunch of bananas. One of the hungry monkeys started climbing the pole to get something to eat, but just as he reached out to grab a banana, he was doused with a torrent of cold water. Squealing, he scampered back down the pole and abandoned his attempt to feed himself. Each monkey made a similar attempt and each one was drenched with cold water. After making several attempts, they finally gave up.

Then researchers removed one of the monkeys from the room and replaced him with a new monkey. As the newcomer began to climb the pole, the other three grabbed him and pulled him down to the ground. After trying to climb the pole several times and being dragged down by the others, he finally gave up and never attempted to climb the pole again.

The researchers replaced the original monkeys, one by one, and each time a new monkey was brought in, he would be dragged down by the others before he could reach the bananas. In time, the room was filled with monkeys who had never received a cold shower. None of them would climb the pole, but not one of them knew why!

I wonder how many things in life I am too scared to try, not because the task is impossible, but because I have just never evaluated if there was a better way of getting it done.

NOTE – after further review it looks like this experiment never really took place…but it sure makes a great point, right! (See comments for some great links)

0 Responses

  1. One of my co-workers in New Zealand loved to tell a story about an engineer who received a phone call from one of his old school buddies. “What are you doing these days?” the buddy asked.

    “I’ m building a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean.”

    “Building a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean? You can’t do that!”

    “I can’t? Tear it down, fellows!”

    Good post, Matt! How many times we do not even attempt something because: (a) We’ve never done that before. (b) We tried that once and failed. (c) Someone objected when we wanted to try that before.

  2. Is this a true experiment or one of those urban legend stories that gets passed around and preachers use it enough that everyone thinks its true?

    1. He says it is true. He cites Hamel and Prahalad’s book “Competing for the Future” p.51-52. A summary of that book can be read here, see p.7 –

      The problem is, at least in the summary, that they don’t acknowledge this to be a real experiment. Now, this article alludes to it on p.12 (88) as a real experiment –

      Looks like it probably really happened. However, it seems that his summary of the event is pretty cut and dry like it worked without fail 100% of the time when the reality may have been that this was the tendency but it wasn’t learned as quickly or thoroughly as was presented in the summary. The summary of the research was to make a point without having to use all the disclaimers that would be needed to present it fairly. So I would say true but embellished.

  3. Matt, I don’t see your conclusion that it probably happened. I discovered the same research you mentioned but the experiment Maxwell didn’t happen. The second article you referenced had an experiment that was different in that the scientist “trained” the monkey. Seems to me that training and water falling on a monkey are vastly different situations. Plus the conclusion was a little on the ambiguous side as to how far to take this. It seems to me that your research (and mine) throws a lot of doubt on the factual nature of this illustration. If he believes in what his story illustrates, he should provide some concrete examples of this actually happening in human circles. Plus I find it ironic that Maxwell cites a book that doesn’t give any reference to the story. He claims it’s true because another book claims it’s true, even though there is no reference to the actual experiment in either book. Sounds fishy to me.

    1. Looks like you are right. I did a bit more looking and it seems like this is a made up story to illustrate a point rather than an actual study.

      I have to mention one interesting article I found in hunting this down. It was a study done at Yale by Keith Chen where a currency was introduced into a community of monkeys and they found the monkeys act in many ways like humans: trying hard to avoid loss/being risk averse, how they respond to shifts in price, etc. Kind of fascinating.

  4. Matt, I guess I’ve been a little over sensitive about illustrations and their factualness. I get all kinds of emails with heart-rending stories that turn out to be false. Sometimes I can use them because I can tell the congregation the story is false and that its falseness fits into the lesson. I’m also a little disappointed that big name preachers and big name authors don’t do enough research to find out whether or not their stories are factual. I think our teaching breaks down when we use fictitious stories. And yet some of the biggest names (preachers and authors) use these stories without checking them out. I wasn’t trying to fuss at you just Maxwell. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I agree! –
    Shows you how easy it is to go along with it. The reason I believed him was the line right before the quote that made it even more believable,

    “Business professors Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad have written about an experiment that was conducted with a group of monkeys. It is a vivid story of failure.

    Four monkeys were placed in a room…” (what I quoted above)

    So not only does he pass the story on. He starts it with an appeal to a seemingly authoritative source.

  6. A good metaphor for “helpful” Christian theology – sort of made up, kinda true, slightly off, really meant well kind of reality.
    Or maybe it was an image of failing… forward… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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