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Monday, July 18, 2011

A GREAT URBAN LEGEND

A long time ago, I heard somewhere a description of an extraordinary experiment with chimps, and I mentioned it a number of times in lectures. Eventually, I had a call from the Yale Law Review, which wanted to reference it in an article and asked for a citation. I had to confess that I had no idea, and I suspect it is an urban legend. Here is how it went:

A group of chimps were denied food until they were very hungry, and then released from their cages into a central area where there was a bunch of bananas. But as they reached for the bananas, they were drenched with cold water, which apparently chimps hate. This was kept up until, Pavlov style, they were conditioned to shrink at the sight of bananas, their favorite food. Now a new chimp was introduced into the group, and when he rushed for the bananas, the other chimps pulled him away, fearful of being doused. Eventually, even though he had never been doused, he too would shrink from bananas, despite being hungry. This was repeated until none of the banana shy chimps had ever been doused, and yet all were averse to their natural food.

This was said to represent the origins of religion. !!!

I am sure it is a legend, but it OUGHT to be true.

5 comments:

John Gee said...

Hearing that this might be an urban legend frustrated me, because I heard of this experiment in a class lecture - not on philosophy, but on psychology! Some preliminary googling showed that a number of other people would also like to know if this is an urban legend: see here

The leading candidate being an anthologized finding by one GR Stephenson, I searched for that article on JSTOR. While I couldn't find the article, the abstract appears in several places, including the proceedings of the Winter 1965 meetings of the American Society of Zoologists and the Ecological Society of America.

In conclusion, while it's safe to say that the experiment is not an urban legend, the finding seems very under-cited relative to its broader popularity as an anecdote. I'd be curious to know why that is. But I've long passed the point of being able to sleep soundly tonight, so I think I'll leave this particular obsession where it lies.

Thank you for a half-hour's diversion!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I love it! I love it! Maybe it is real!!! I take this as a clear sign that there is a God. :)

Marinus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marinus said...

I've heard Frans de Waal repeat this story, and given that he's among the the leading primatologists in the world, that would make it being a legend unlikely.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

This is just spectacular. The internet has justified itself. Had I known, I would have woven the story into my tutorial on the study of society.