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Why Do You Do The Things You Do?

March 04, 2018


Ever wondered how an organization’s culture is created? Well, here below I have shared two interesting (real) stories that quite effectively encapsulate the process of culture formation.

An experiment was conducted in which five rhesus monkeys were placed in a cage together with a bunch of banana hanging high on a rope outside the reach of the monkeys.  A step ladder was placed in the cage that would enable the monkeys to reach the banana, but there was a catch.  The catch was that whenever one of the monkeys attempted to climb and reach for the banana, ALL monkeys were sprayed with freezing cold water.

After a few attempts, all the monkeys learned that there was an association between reaching for the banana and the group’s collective punishment of being sprayed with freezing water.  There was no longer need for the water; no monkeys would attempt to reach the banana.

The researcher then replaced one of the five monkeys with a new monkey. The new monkey, not aware of the icy water treatment, tried to reach for the banana. Within a fraction of a second the other four monkeys attacked him again and again, until he no longer tried to reach the banana.  Remember, he never ever experienced the icy water punishment, so he did not even know why he was being attacked. One by one, the monkeys who had experienced the original icy water treatment were replaced by a new monkey.  With the introduction of each new monkey, the other monkeys would attack him until he quit trying for the banana.

Eventually, the cage was populated by five new monkeys, none who had experienced the icy water treatment.  The experimenter then introduced a new monkey to the cage. When this monkey tried to reach for the banana, all five monkeys attacked him.

The story goes that even though none of these monkeys knew about the collective punishment of icy water, somewhat along the way they learnt that reaching for the banana is not allowed. They become the guardians of this rule without knowing its purpose. It was just the way things were done in the cage. It was the cage culture to ensure no monkey went for the banana.

Now, before I move on to the next story, if you are an employee, are there some things you found being done at your current place of work and you just fell into step without really asking why people were doing them? How about in your clan, are there things you do as a clan that you found being done whose history you have no idea about but because it is your clan you just go ahead and follow (blindly)?

While you chew on that, here is the next story.

There is a story about an army barracks that had 4 soldiers on post guarding a concrete slab, changing shifts for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for over 80 years.  Commander after commander came and continued the tradition without really bothering to ask why.

Many years later, a new commander was assigned to the barracks and found that tradition going on. Curious, he asked why the soldiers guarded the concrete slab. He was told, “We’ve always done it this way. It’s our tradition. Our former commanders instructed us to do that”.

The new commander wanted to find out why, so he went to the archives to look for an answer. He found an old document with instructions by a retired, and now deceased commander that stated the barracks wanted to build a platform where events were to be performed.  Wild animals walked on the concrete at night before the slab would dry. The next day the soldiers fixed it but by evening the same thing would happen.  So the commander ordered 4 soldiers to guard the slab for 3 weeks round the clock until it would dry.

The following week the commander was transferred to another post and the new commander continued to enforce the routine and every new commander always did the same. No commander ever questioned why soldiers were guarding a concrete slab that was never used until 80 years later when the new commander that came in asked why, researched it and made some changes in command. Well, three weeks had turned into 80 years i.e. 4,190 weeks simply because they “have always done it this way.”

Again, another classic example of how traditions or habits in an organization are created, regardless of whether they are good or bad.

Whereas the above two stories may sound funny and probably even silly, the truth is that every one of us at one point in life has been one of those monkeys mentioned in the research above, or like one of the four soldiers protecting a slab from some unknown "harm".

It is true each one of us has gone through uncomfortable or even painful experiences in life, experiences that may have left a huge deposit of negative memories in your mind. It could have been the death of a loved one that you have never really fully recovered from, and as a result you find yourself stuck in the past and unable to open your heart to someone else for fear of losing them; or maybe you are a woman who just came to the realization that the dude you were ready to do anything for (including giving up a kidney to save his life!) was actually stringing you along and taking you for granted, knowing fully well that you are not the one he was going to marry - to him you were just a distraction while he was waiting for his main attraction; or maybe a business that went down due to bad blood between the business partners and now you have been left with huge debts to face on your own. I am sure the scenarios are many, but these are just a few.

Any of the situations described above (and many more you know of) can cripple someone mentally and emotinally. This cripplingmay trigger a reaction that comes from those residual painful memories that cause a person to automatically guard themselves from ever being hurt again. Unfortunately, as long as you are alive, it is not possible to live a hurt-proof life. You just have to decide that you will not allow that hurt to get to you and cripple your mind.

The problem is that one might become so guarded that they reject any genuine opportunity for a breakthrough in their life, whether it is starting a new relationship with someone else, or starting a new business, or moving to a new city, or starting a new project never before attempted, most people become so guarded that they sabotage their own opportunities.

That is the equivalent of beating the crap out of any monkey that attempts to climb the ladder as per the story shared above i.e. letting your old fears talk you out of going after your dream, or letting  your past failure scare you into not attempting something new in your life, or letting your old attitudes and beliefs blind you to what you could achieve in future. You need to come to a point in your life where you ask yourself the same question the new commander asked; why are you guarding that concrete slab?

So, Why have you been sabotaging your opportunities? 

  1. Is it because someone told you sometimes back that you will never amount to anything and will always be a failure?
  2. Is it because some insecure, self-serving and stuck-up dude told you your type never gets married?
  3. Is it becasue you allowed someone to erode your self-esteem by listening to their misguided perception of who you are?
  4. Is it because you failed twice in your exams and are now afraid of sitting for the same exams again lest you fail a third time?
  5. Is it because you made some wrong choices in your life whose price you are now paying, and now you are so afraid of repeating the same mistake?

Be sure you have the right reasons for doing things the way you do them. Remember, reasons are few but excuses are numerous.

The reason why the first set of monkeys were beating any monkey that attempted to pick the banana is because every time they did, it was associated with a bad experience; ice cold water! Poor primates. As time progressed and all the original monkeys were replaced by other monkeys that never had the ice-cold water experience, the same belief system continued. The fear of being beaten was instilled in them.

My question to you today is; what have you stopped yourself from doing because you FEAR ice-cold water will be sprayed on you?  I have underlined the word fear because this is the one major reason why many people have stagnated in life. They have let fear take over their lives because of negative experiences they passed through in the past.

In the words of Karl Augustus Menninger, “Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out.” Indeed it is true. Many of the fears we entertain are instilled in us, like we have seen in the case of the monkeys. Worse still, if you dig deeper you will realize that the fears are baseless!  Like H. P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Indeed fear is an emotion that only serves to block your development and potential, ensuring you never really become your ultimate best.

It does not mean that having fear is a bad thing. It is not. What is bad is succumbing to your fears. In order to progress in life, you have to do something to face your fears. I like something Dale Carnegie said: “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. Be so busy following your dream that you will not have to remember how afraid you were in the first place. Like someone said, “go do it afraid.”

So in conclusion today I’ll encourage you to do one thing: the next time someone says to you, you can’t do that ask the question “Why?”

I can almost guarantee you that two things are likely to happen; one, it may generate some interesting new thoughts and discussions, plus you will get to know what this person really thinks about you.  Two, the person's response might be a bunch of baloney, or s/he might be completely clueless, just like the monkeys and the soldiers didn’t know why they were doing what they were doing. 

So, as I come to the end of this article I have one question to ask you today; why do you really do the things you do? Is it for baseless and obsolete reasons like the monkeys and the soldiers. Try answering this question as candidly as possible, and that might be the “key” you’ve been looking for all your life, the key that will bring total freedom and transformation.

Apply this test to every area of your life and you will be surprised to realize that the reason you are not where you should have been by now is because you still go around practicing obsolete habits! I personally did it and was seriously surprised by this realization.


In line with this question, this week I’d like to introduce the book I will be reading in the ongoing book reading challenge dubbed #52BooksIn52Weeks2018. The book is titled “The Power Of Habit written by Charles Duhigg, a book that seeks to demystify “Why we do what we do in life and business.”

Lastly, this being a new month, the 3rd and last month of the 1st quarter of the year, don’t let old hurts and habits hold you back from experiencing and living up to your full potential. Allow yourself to go through transformation by breaking all manner of limiting beliefs. Today is day 63 of the year 2018. You have 302 more days to go before the year is over, and you have the power in you today to change the routine of your life like the new commander did when he discovered resources were being allocated to an obsolete project.

My advice, change or stop something (limiting) you are doing today and you will start getting some new growth related results.


Be Ignited. Be Inspired. Be Influenced. Become the best version of yourself you can ever be.


PS: This article was originally published in Tanzania's Guardian On Sunday on the 4th of March, 2018, under my weekly column "Thoughts in Words".




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