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Monkey See, Monkey Do

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Originally published on March 5, 2020

Happy Thursday,

I started listening to the book Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior by Johan Berger last week. The premise of the book is that “without realizing it, other people’s behavior has a huge influence on everything we do at every moment of our lives, from the mundane to the momentous.” On one hand, this statement is not surprising. As I wrote in an earlier Lyon’s Letter, we seem to be products of our environments. On the other hand, the idea that everything we do is based on who we are around is quite overwhelming.

I wanted to share a brief excerpt from pages 26-27 with you…

Scientists often study vervets because of their humanlike characteristics. The monkeys display hypertension, anxiety, and even social and abusive alcohol consumption. Like humans, most prefer drinking in the afternoon, rather than the morning, but heavy drinkers will drink even in the morning and some will even drink until they pass out.

In one clever study, researchers conditioned wild vervets to avoid certain foods. Scientists gave the monkeys two trays of corn, one containing pink corn and the other blue corn. For one group of monkeys, the scientists soaked the pink corn in a bitter repulsive liquid. For another group of monkeys, the researchers flipped the colors—blue tasted bad and pink normal.

Gradually, the monkeys learned to avoid whichever color tasted bad. The first group of monkeys avoided the pink corn while the other group avoided the blue. Just like [calling the sugary, carbonated beverage] soda in the Northeast and pop in the Midwest, local norms had been created.

But scientists weren’t just trying to condition the monkeys, they were interested in social influence. What would happen to new untrained monkeys who joined each group?

To see what would happen, the researchers took the colored corn away and waited a few months until new baby monkeys were born. Then, they placed trays of pink and blue corn in front of the monkeys. Except this time they removed the bad taste. Now the pink corn and the blue corn both tasted fine.

Which would the monkeys choose?

Pink and blue corn were just as tasty, so the baby monkeys should have gone after both. But they didn’t. Even though the infants weren’t around when one color of corn tasted bitter, they imitated the other members of their group. If their mothers avoided the blue corn, they did the same. Some babies even sat on the avoided color to eat the other, ignoring it as potential food.

Conformity was so strong that monkeys who switched groups also switched colors. Some older male monkeys happened to change groups during the study. Some moved from the Pink Avoiders to the Blue Avoiders, and vice versa. And as a result, these monkeys also changed their food preferences. Switchers adopted the local norm, eating whichever color was customary among their new group.

I know that we are not monkeys (nor do I want anyone to think that I am saying that we are). Nevertheless, we should focus on Berger’s points: influence and conformity. This excerpt makes me think about how we help new families who start in a school/district understand what is enjoyable and what is not. I wonder how new students are welcomed? How do new employees learn how to behave based on how existing employees behave?

The new employee piece reminds me of how author, speaker, and educator, Todd Whitaker, told my district on our Opening Day in 2018 that we should be hiring people who will help us grow—those who have strengths that we don’t yet have. I love that idea. While there is much that our newest employees have to learn about us, I hope that we are not so quick to have them conform that we do not have the chance to learn from them. As well, I hope that we take the time to think about what we are teaching them. After all, even if the blue or pink corn used to taste different, we need to be open to the idea that they are both good now.

Maybe the part I like best about the book is at the end when Berger writes:

We can also choose our influence. Social influence has a huge impact on behavior. But by understanding how it works, we can harness its power. We can avoid its downsides and take advantage of its benefits. We can maintain our individuality and avoid being swept up in the crowd. We can have more fulfilling social interactions, be more successful, and use others to help us make better-informed decisions. By understanding when social influence is beneficial, we can decide when we resist influence and when to embrace it.

By gaining insight into how social influence works, we put it to work, improving our own lives, and the lives of others. Influence is a tool, like any other. If we understand it, we don’t have to stand passively by and just watch it happen. We can use it. We can design environments, shape situations, and build programs…that harness the power of social influence to make the world a better place. (p. 232)

He then asks his readers two questions which I’ll ask you, “Where do you see influence? How do the others around you shape your life and how are you shaping theirs” (p. 232)?


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