3 Classic Stories About Human Behavior and Psychology You Probably Believe…But Aren't True
By: Ben Wills |

In middle school, around the same time my dad handed me his copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he told me a story about goal setting and success.

He told me that he had learned from his own mentors (informally, through books, tapes, etc) - Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy, etc - about a Yale study that tracked business students over a few decades. Some of the students wrote their goals and kept them in their wallets. Some didn't.

Those students were surveyed again a couple/few decades later. The ones who had written down their goals accomplished those goals at a significantly higher percentage than those who didn't.

"And that's why you write down your goals. And keep them with you."

It's a wonderful story of how being clear on your goals and reflecting on them regularly will lead to a greater chance of success at achieving those goals.

Unfortunately, that parable isn't true.

I learned a couple of months ago that another story I'd heard from someone I respect also wasn't entirely true.

This story is one of optimism being a critical survival/success factor. In it, there are two groups of rats.

In the first group of rats, one rat at a time is placed into a bowl of milk. Just before they may drown, they are rescued. The time that they swam is recorded.

In the second group of rats, one rat at a time is placed into a bowl of milk. The difference from the first group is that this bowl has a small, shallow island on it. This island doesn't break the surface but, if a rat swims around long enough, it will find it, stand, and no longer have to swim to survive.

The scientists then performed this test again with each of the rats. Only this time, only the bowl without the island was used. Again, just before the rats may drown, the scientists scooped them up. The scientists then logged the length of time each of the rats swam.

Their discovery? The rats that were in group two, because they optimistically believed there to be an island, were able to swim approximately twice as long as the rats in group one.

It's a wonderful story of how optimism can, in a sense, save your life.

Unfortunately, it's not exactly true.

(It should be noted that a very similar kind of experiment is performed, though it is designed to measure spacial learning and memory, not optimism.)

A third story that had a profound impact on me and what it means to "believe" something is one involving monkey and group behavior.

In this experiment, a group of five monkeys is placed in a room, along with a ladder leaned against the wall. At the top of the ladder, a banana is placed. Once the banana is placed at the top of the ladder, as expected, one of the monkeys rushes up the ladder, grabs the banana, then peels and eats the banana.

The scientists then place another banana at the top of the ladder and, when a monkey goes up to get it, the other four monkeys are sprayed with water in a way that is uncomfortable. The four monkeys hate this.

The scientists then place another banana at the top of the ladder and, when it's grabbed, they spray the other four monkeys again. They do this over and over until, eventually, when a monkey tries to get the new banana, they fight him and prevent him from going up the ladder to get the banana. The banana ends up just sitting there.

The scientists then remove one of the five monkeys from the room and replace it with another monkey that has not seen this dynamic play out.

A banana is placed at the top of the ladder. The new monkey tries to go up the ladder to get the banana, but the other four monkeys, believing they will be sprayed with water, fight the new monkey and prevent him from getting the banana.

Another of the original five monkeys is replaced so there are now two "new" monkeys and three of the original. A banana is placed at the top of the ladder and the newest monkey tries to go up the ladder.

Surprisingly, even though the first new monkey was never sprayed uncomfortably with water, the first new monkey added also joins in on the fighting and keeping the newest monkey from going up the ladder to get the banana. Maybe the first new monkey is learning from the group dynamics alone, and believing something that it has no experience with?

The scientists decide to test this by replacing, one at a time, the remaining three original monkeys. The behavior of preventing the new monkey from going up the ladder to get the banana is repeated.

Eventually, the scientists end up with a room full of five monkeys that have never directly received the water-spraying consequence, but won't go up the ladder to get a free banana. And, if one tries to, the other four will violently prevent him from doing so.

It's a wonderful story of how easy it is to believe and feel something just because others in your group feel and believe it. Eventually, you end up with a group of beliefs that have no grounding in reality and you don't know where they came from, but they feel very real to you.

Unfortunately, this story is not true, either.

But, at least it's a great make-believe story to remind you to not believe make-believe stories.

Doveryai, no proveryai.

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