The Gorilla Parable

Yesterday in a breakout session titled “Music Learning = Life Learning” Tim Lautzenheiser told this great story about our learned aversion to change:

A scientist did an experiment involving 5 gorillas in a cage.  The cage had a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling and a ladder sitting right under the bananas so the gorillas could get them.  Simple enough, but here’s the catch:  every time one of the gorillas approached the ladder, the scientist would spray all of the gorillas with cold water.

Gorillas hate being wet, and cold water is particularly uncomfortable for them.  So it didn’t take long before no gorilla would approach the ladder under any circumstance for fear of being sprayed.

Once the gorillas had given up on the bananas, the scientist exchanged one of the “trained” gorillas with one who had never been sprayed.  Predictably, when the new gorilla approached the ladder to get the bananas he was attacked by the other 4.  No water was used this time, but it didn’t take long for the newbie to learn that approaching the ladder would result in a beating.

The scientist then replaced another “trained” gorilla with another newbie, who took a similiar pounding when he approached the ladder.  The kicker this time was this:  the first newbie happily took part in the beating of the second newbie, even though he personally had never been sprayed with water.

The scientist continued to replace “trained” gorillas with newbies until the cage contained none of the original 5.  None of the current gorillas had ever been sprayed with water, and none of them ever approached the ladder for the bananas.  

And none of them knew why.


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