Monkey See, Monkey Do

Consultant Debunking Unit

This past winter, Walt Disney Pictures released its $80 million remake of Mighty Joe Young, an adventure tale that first came to the screen in 1949. The story, which changed only slightly from the old version to the new one, is standard fare: A gorilla, brought from Africa to the United States, behaves violently in order to save himself — despite his basically gentle nature. It's a story of man and nature, of social behavior and animal behavior, of change and learning.

Which brings us to this edition of the Consultant Debunking Unit — or, in the spirit of a remake, the Consultant Re-Debunking Unit (CR-DU). For just as there are monkey movies that keep coming back, so there are management myths that refuse to stay debunked. This monkey business was brought to the attention of the CR-DU when Dave Potter, a Fast Company reader and organization-development consultant, emailed to tell us that the fable of "The Hundredth Monkey" was once again making the rounds: "I've heard 'The Hundredth Monkey' referenced by motivational speakers who want to impress the power of minds working together. I've also heard it from consultants who lean more toward 'New Age' philosophies."

The "hundredth monkey" tale first surfaced in the late 1970s, in Lifetide (Simon & Schuster, 1979), by New Age scientist Lyall Watson. Then, in 1982, Ken Keyes Jr. popularized the parable in The Hundredth Monkey (Vision Books), an anti-nuclear-war treatise that sold more than 1 million copies. The monkey myth, as recounted by Keyes, goes like this: On an island near Japan, scientists distributed sandy sweet potatoes to a colony of monkeys. Soon one young monkey learned how to wash the sand off the potatoes before eating them. She taught the trick first to her mother and then to other young monkeys. More and more young monkeys started teaching their parents how to wash sweet potatoes. One day, the 100th monkey learned how to wash the sandy spuds — and at that moment, miraculously, all of the monkeys started washing their potatoes. Even more amazing, the potato-washing practice leapt over land and sea: Monkeys on other islands were suddenly washing their food too. According to Keyes, the story demonstrates the power of a critical mental mass: "When a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind." For consultants who want scientific information about organizational transformation, is this a truly compelling story? You bet! Is it true? No way! The first debunking of the "hundredth monkey" story came in 1985, when Ron Amundson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii, published "The Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon" (Skeptical Inquirer, Summer 1985). Amundson documented that there had been a colony of monkeys — on an island called Koshima. And many of those monkeys did learn how to wash sweet potatoes. But the number of monkeys never exceeded 59. And there was no evidence of a leap of consciousness from monkey to monkey.

Confronted with this information, myth creator Watson responded with a monkey mea culpa (Whole Earth Review, Fall 1986): "It is a metaphor of my own making, based . . . on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay." But even Watson's admission failed to put the monkey matter to rest — and now the monkeys are making a return engagement. So we contacted Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University's Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta. De Waal, who has been studying primates for 28 years, recently returned from Koshima with an update on the potato-washing monkeys. There are now about 100 monkeys in the colony, de Waal says, but there is still no mind-meld miracle. And the percentage of monkeys that wash their potatoes has declined to about 25%: The monkeys may see, but the monkeys no do. "It's clearly a made-up story," de Waal says.

Just one question remains: Will the myth of "the hundredth monkey" have to be debunked 100 times before consultants suddenly — and miraculously — stop monkeying around with it?

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