Monday, December 14, 2009

All The Monkeys Aren't In the Zoo...

…because many are now in the pages of business books.

Consider the following examples. In SuperFreakonomics (Morrow), Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner describe numerous lab experiments, including one conducted by Yale University economist Keith Chen. Chen wanted to see if lab monkeys could learn the concept of money, so he began by getting them to see that they could use the “coins” he gave them to buy food. They caught on quickly. Later, Chen saw one monkey giving some coins to another. Aha, the economist thought: They have an innate sense of altruism—just as many economists said existed in humans. (For a video interview with Levitt, go to:

Wrong. Shortly thereafter, Chen witnessed the same two monkeys having sex—and realized that they had on their own discovered the age-old institution of prostitution.

You see—monetary incentives really work, Levitt and Dubner conclude.

Primate protagonists also show up another new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books) by best-selling author Daniel H. Pink. This volume, too, surveys numerous laboratory experiments, including one conducted in 1940 by University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry F. Harlow. Only here, the evidence challenges the effectiveness of monetary incentives.

Pink describes how Harlow placed a simple mechanical puzzle in the cages of several rhesus monkeys. In short order, the monkeys figured out how the puzzles worked. Significantly, they required no incentives—food, affection, or otherwise—to arouse their interest in puzzle-solving. “The performance of the task,” Harlow concluded, “provided intrinsic reward.” The monkeys solved the puzzles because they enjoyed doing so. Moreover, the introduction of incentives seemed counterproductive—raisins as rewards proved distracting, causing the monkeys to make mistakes and solve the puzzles less frequently. (Pink's new book publishes on January 4. It's described at his website:

What’s it all mean? That monkey behavior is inconsistent? Perhaps even as inconsistent and irrational as that of human beings?

There’s an abundance of beasts in other business books as well. Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Legg Mason Capital Management chief strategy officer Michael J. Mauboussin (Harvard Business) relies on an account of honeybees’ swarming activity to describe decision-making within “complex adaptive systems.” Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw (Little, Brown) provides an account of pit-bull misbehavior and the animals’ subsequent banning in Canada.

It seems that authors have concluded that business readers find lessons rooted in animal behavior to be persuasive.

Little wonder: A veritable library of business fables modeled on the megaselling Who Moved My Cheese? and Our Iceberg is Melting has featured as leading characters mice, ducks, penguins, whales, fish and more. Monkeys were only the next stage of plot evolution.

(Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim, at

1 comment:

  1. As a reader, I do suggest my favorite book –

    Added Value – the life stories of Indian Business Leaders ( “) and

    Added Value – the Life Stories of Leading South East Asian
    Business People –”

    These are wonderful books to read.