From the Canyon Edge -- :-Dustin

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guarded Gorilla

Five gorillas were placed in a large cage. In the far corner of the cage, ten steps led up to a small platform. At random intervals, bananas would be lowered onto the platform.

One observant gorilla noticed the bananas, and he started up the stairs. But a sensor detected the gorilla's presence near the stairs and the entire cage (all five gorillas) were thoroughly drenched with ice cold water. Gorillas, like other primates, hate being sprayed with ice cold water.

This happened each and every time any individual approached the stairs. They learned to never approach the stairs, no matter how many delicious treats landed on the platform. Gorillas, like other primates, respond quickly to conditioning.

Eventually, one of the five gorillas was replaced by a new subject. This new gorilla saw the juicy bananas at the top of the stairs and started toward them. They beat the new gorilla senseless before he even reached the stairs. Gorillas, like other primates, can be terribly violent creatures.

The second of the five original gorillas was subsequently replaced by another new gorilla. An encore scene ensued, with the new gorilla approaching the banana platform, but he, too, was severely pummeled by the other four, including the gorilla who was most recently mauled!

The third, fourth, and fifth of the original gorillas were each replaced, one by one, until none of the five original gorillas remained in the cage. Moreover, none of these five gorillas had ever actually been sprayed with the detested ice water.

In fact, the sensor that monitored the stairs had been damaged during one of the more intense skirmishes and was no longer operational. A heap of bananas remained at the top of the stairs on the platform, free for the taking. Yet each time a new gorilla arrived, the other five never-been-sprayed gorillas provided the newcomer with their introductory thrashing and local education.

These gorillas, like other primates, have a penchant for maintaining "the way it's always been done 'round here."

Adapted from the oft-retold Parable of the Gorilla.


  1. Wow, that is the Canonical employee reward system! (Except the Gorillas are encouraged to spend their time, while not beating each other senseless, to write about mutual respect).

  2. That is actually a true study (but using monkeys) by Harry Harlow. Here's one reference to it as commonly applied to corporate culture

  3. I'd like to be perfectly clear...this post is not directed at my employer, Canonical, nor any individual or individuals that I work with.

    It is simply a thought exercise, encouraging all of us to think long and hard before attacking others for suggesting something "different", and challenge the status quo from time to time.


  4. Hi there, thanks for the pointer to Harry Harlow. I looked, but could not find any hard reference to a real psychological study of this kind. Could you please point me to one, as I would love to cite it here?

    I, myself, heard the story from an instructor in the IBM Leadership Excellence Program, during a session on "Change", as it pertains to technical leaders in the enterprise. The story has always stuck with me, and I've thought about it many, many times since I first heard it.

    I think it's more pertinent than ever to the Ubuntu Server team and product right now.


  5. Hi, I have been using this anecdote for years in reference to corporate bullying / mobbing. The experiment as usually described did not take place, and has nothing to do with Harry Harlow. It is a mutant meme.

    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.


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