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The Sum of the Whole Is Our Behavior (a Monday post) November 16, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Faith, Healing Stories, Karma, Life, One Hoop, Pain, Philosophy, Science, Suffering, Vipassana, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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This is the post for Monday, November 15th. You can request an audio recording of Sunday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

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“If we meet other people in a friendly way, they also become friendly. But if we are afraid of them or if we show our disliking to them, they behave in the same manner. These are simple truths which the world has known for ages. But even so, the world forgets the people of one country who hate and fear the people of another country because they are afraid, they are sometimes foolish enough to fight each other.

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Children should be wiser. At any rate, I hope the children who read this will be more sensible.”

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– quoted from the November 1958 “Letter to the Children of India” by Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, signed “Yours lovingly, Chacha Nehru

As I mentioned during yesterday’s practice and blog post, we’ve all been children and, as children, we were given a world/society and taught different ways to understand that world/society. We were given culture (or cultures) and raised to understand our culture(s) and other people’s culture(s) in certain ways. On a certain level, we could say, that we begin life as “passive recipients.” However, children are curious and children play, experiment, and explore in order to learn and grow. With ourselves, our peers, and our toys, we begin to accept and/or reject the world and culture(s) that were given to us and the understanding that was taught to us. That’s part of being a child: questioning our environment; even pushing back at what we are taught about our environment; and creatively considering other possibilities. In other words, part of being a child is figuring out how we fit into the world.

Do we continue to exist as a “passive recipient” or do we become a “co-creator” of our culture and environment?

I don’t remember ever hearing the terms “passive recipient” and “co-creator,” as related to culture, until I met Merrick Rosenberg. He is a consultant, keynote speaker, and personality expert who often works with companies undergoing change. He is the co-founder of Team Builders Plus and Take Flight Learning; the co-author of the parable Take Flight! (Master the DISC Styles to Transform Your Career, your Relationships… Your Life) and Personality Wins: Who Will Take the White House and How We Know; and the author of the parable The Chameleon: Life Changing Wisdom For Anyone Who Has A Personality Or Knows Someone Who Does and the children’s book Which Bird Are You? (recommended for ages 8 – 12). He is also a black belt who practices yoga – which is how we met and how I ended up reading and recommending his first book.

I was already interested in change management; had already looked into Virginia Satir’s Change Process Model and was fascinated by what it takes to shift culture – on an individual, corporate, and global scale. But Take Flight! (which I highly recommend) and my conversation with Merrick Rosenberg about his work caused me to dig a little deeper into the roles we play when it comes to change and the beliefs we hold that, inevitably, shape those roles. As evidence by his books, Merrick likes a good parable and, so, it’s not surprising that when I searched his work, I found more stories.

Just as I shared one of those stories towards the end of Monday’s practice, I’ll share that story towards the end of this post. But first, a little back story. It’s actually several stories, that converge around behavior, belief, culture, and personality.

There seems to be a single starting point for psychology, exactly as for all the other sciences: the world as we find it, naïvely and uncritically. The naïveté may be lost as we proceed.

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–  quoted from Chapter I: A Discussion of Behaviorism” in Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology by Dr. Wolfgang Köhler

 

Wolfgang Köhler, PhD, born January 21, 1887, was a German psychologist whose field of expertise included phenomenology, the study of subjective experience. Along with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, he was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, which focused on the human mind and behavior as a whole, rather than on individual elements. (Since November 15th is National Tree Planting Day in Sri Lanka, think of a Gestalt psychologist as someone who would focus on the whole forest rather than a single tree, or on how the whole world is affected by planting trees in a forest.) Dr. Köhler is remembered because of his research with chimpanzees, which provided insight into human behavior, as well as his lived experience as it related to human behavior during Nazi Germany.

After completing his PhD at the University of Berlin and working with Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka at the Psychological Institute in Frankfurt, Wolfgang Köhler moved to the island of Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, and became the director of the anthropoid research station at the Prussian Academy of Sciences. There, from 1913 – 1919, his research included the problem solving skills of chimpanzees, which he choose to study specifically because their brains were structurally similar to humans. In 1917, he published The Mentality of Apes, which described chimpanzees using “insight learning” to access some fruit that was out of reach, rather than trial-and-error.

Remember, when we think of insight from the perspective of Buddhist or Yoga Philosophy, we think of it as wisdom that comes from “[seeing] in a special way” and this is exactly what Dr. Köhler observed. When the chimpanzees realized their food source was out of reach, they paused for a moment and (according to Dr. Köhler’s research) came up with a solution that relied upon an understanding of cause-and-effect. The chimpanzees in the experiments realized that they needed tools to reach the fruit that was too far away or too high and either connected sticks or stacked boxes to make up the difference.

In 1920, Wolfgang Köhler returned to Germany and (eventually) succeeded one of his mentors (Carl Stumpf) as the director of the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin. He was there as the Nazis came into power in 1933 and while one of his mentors (the physicists Max Planck) criticized the effect Nazi Germany’s policies were having on the field of science, Dr. Köhler was publicly silent for many months. Towards the end of April 1933, however, he wrote an article criticizing the Nazi Party and the practice of dismissing Jewish professors. Then he attempted to organize a resistance movement within the scientific community – but his colleagues erroneously believed the fascist regime would largely leave the universities to their own devices. On November 3, 1933, the Nazi government announced that professors were required to start their lectures with the Nazi salute.

Dr. Köhler refused to passively accept the culture that was being handed to forced on him. Within a month of publicly explaining his refusal to follow the edict, his class was raided and student’s leaving his lecture were forced to show their identification. By May of 1934, he had concluded that there was nothing more he could do and announced plans to retire. By that summer, his interactions with students and other faculty and staff was under investigation. Unable to effectively teach or conduct research, Wolfgang Köhler immigrated to the United States in 1935, where he taught and conducted research at Swarthmore College and (in 1956) at Dartmouth College. He would also eventually serve as President of the American Psychological Association and as a guest lecturer and faculty advisor at the Free University of Berlin.

I know, I know, that’s already a lot of information. So, here are the highlights: Dr. Wolfgang Köhler believed (a) that subjective experience matters; (b) that the human mind and behavior have to be considered as a whole (and that whole includes subjective experience); (c) that, like chimpanzees, humans are capable of problem solving through insight learning; and (d) that people could – and one can argue should – stand up for what they believe to be right and, in doing so, actively co-create the world in which the live.

Problems may be found which were at first completely hidden from our eyes. For their solution it may be necessary to devise concepts which seem to have little contact with direct primary experience.

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–  quoted from Chapter I: A Discussion of Behaviorism” in Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology by Dr. Wolfgang Köhler

Fast forward to the 1960’s, and we find generations of researchers standing on shoulders of scientific giants like Dr. Wolfgang Köhler. One of those researchers was Dr. Gordon R. Stephenson (at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) who, in 1967, published a paper entitled “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkey.” The paper detailed research that involved 4 male and 4 female “lab-reared rhesus monkeys… about 3 years of age,” a variety of plastic kitchen utensils, a test cage, and air that was blasted on the monkeys under certain circumstances. (NOTE: I’m just highlighting here. Dr. Stephenson’s paper and experiment are more detailed than my summary and include the fact that the monkeys “had much play experience with each other;” were considered “socially normal;”  and had no conditioning prior to the experiment.) 

According to the paper, the monkeys were assigned unisex partners and then one of the pair would be placed in the test cage with one of the plastic objects. Observations included “passive contact,” whereby contact between the monkey and the object was not intentional, and active engagement that ranged from intentionally moving the object to playing with it and/or mouthing or chewing it. For the most part, the interactions were consistent between each group based on the different objects and all subjects tended to manipulate the novel objects more than the familiar. Higher and lower manipulation trends were experienced by all the monkeys during the same periods of time throughout the multi-week experiment. Although, there were some statistically differences in manipulation rates between males and females when they were alone (in general the male rate was twice as high in the first block); between males and females when they were with a partner; and between objects (regardless of sex).

In the first part of the experiment, an individual monkey that intentionally manipulated an object, was “punished” with an air blast. In general, the monkeys stopped manipulating the objects after two or three blasts. Later, when the conditioned monkeys came back to the test cage for the second stage, they avoided the objects without any air blasts. In the third part of the experiment, the (now) conditioned monkey was brought into the cage with its naïve partner. and the plastic object. In the fourth part, the naïve partner was brought into the cage with the plastic object. 

Dr. Stephenson wanted to see if (and how) the conditioned learning would be transferred. He observed the following:

(a) many of the naïve monkeys were cautious about the plastic object when they observed the behavior of their conditioned partners;

(b) most of the conditioned male monkeys (in various ways) intervened when their naïve partners approached the plastic objects and this sometimes altered subsequent (fourth stage) behavior*;

(c) most of the conditioned female monkeys did not interfere when their naïve partners approached the plastic objects; and 

(d) some of the conditioned female monkeys approached the plastic objects when their naïve partners were not blasted with air (indicating that they learned through observation that the “punishment” was not being applied).

Later experiments, conducted with different monkeys and under slightly different – including some that used food, showed a higher (baseline) manipulation rate with the female monkeys, but similar results in the interaction between conditioned and naïve pairs (i.e., male monkeys were more likely to interfere when their partners tried to manipulate the objects). Some of these later experiments found that female monkeys with infants were more likely to pull their offspring away from an object than a naïve peer.

*NOTE: Later experiments also found that the level of interference, with regard to male monkeys, may make a difference in the naïve partners interaction with the test object in the fourth stage. 

I regard culture as the constellation of behaviors characteristic of a single social group, behaviors which are transgenerational and socially learned by individuals as members of the group. The present report describes an attempt to apply controlled laboratory methods to a social learning situation suggested by the above field and laboratory observations. My particular interest was whether the learned avoidance behavior of a conditioned monkey toward a conditioning object could induce a lasting effect on the behavior of a second toward that same object.

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–  quoted from A. Introduction” in Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeyby Gordon R. Stephenson, Department of Zoology, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Fast forward again, to 2011, when an article entitled “What Monkeys Can Teach us About Human Behavior” appeared as a Psychology Today post. The post was written by creativity expert and author Michael Michalko, who served as an officer in the United States Army and worked with “NATO intelligence specialists and international academics in Frankfurt, Germany, to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods” and then applied those methods to problem solve. He has since extended that knowledge about problem solving into the corporate and public sphere. In his 2011 post, he described the now infamous “5 Monkeys” experiment, which is the story I came across some years ago after meeting Merrick Rosenberg. And, maybe, it’s a story you’ve heard.

The “5 Monkeys” experiment goes like this: Researchers placed 5 monkeys in a cage with a set of steps placed underneath bananas tied to the top of the cage. Whenever the monkeys started using the steps to get to the bananas, the researchers sprayed them with ice cold water until they stopped. Once the monkeys were conditioned to not go for the bananas, the researchers replaced one of the conditioned monkeys with a naïve monkey and observed the four conditioned monkeys intervening, sometimes violently, whenever the naïve monkey headed for the steps. Once the new monkey was conditioned, the researchers replaced another conditioned monkey with a naïve monkey and repeated the steps until the cage contained the steps, the bananas, and 5 monkeys that had never been sprayed with water – but had been conditioned by their peers to not go after the bananas!

It’s a great story. It’s a really great story, especially if you want an easy-to-follow, scientifically-supported business lesson about culture and conditioned behavior. It’s a really great and inspiring story if, as one CPA and Controller stated in 2019, you’re “not a big fan of fiction.”

There’s just one problem.

The “5 Monkeys” experiment, by all indications, is fiction.

In a comment on Michalko’s blog post, primatologist Frans De Waal expressed some skepticism about the experiment and asked Michalko if he had a scientific reference for this study. In response to the comment from another reader, Michalko posted the following:

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‘FIVE MONKEYS. This story originated with the research of G.R. Stephenson. (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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… His research inspired the story of five monkeys. Some believe the story is true, while others believed it’s an exaggerated account of his research. True story or not, his published research with rhesus monkeys, in my opinion, makes the point.’

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–  quoted from the Psychology Today blog post What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Human Behavior: From Facts to Fiction – When creativity crosses the line.by Dario Maestripieri Ph.D. (Reviewed by Ekua Hagan), posted March 20, 2012

By his own words, Michael Michalko knew the published details of Dr. Gordon Stephenson’s experiment  and knew that that experiment did not use food, a ladder, water, or more than two monkeys in a cage at a time. Neither did it include a naïve/community-conditioned monkey that “took part in the punishment with enthusiasm!” as he described. Although, that description kind of parallels Dr. Wolfgang Köhler’s observation that once his chimpanzees came up with a solution, they executed their plan with “unwavering purpose.” Given the similarities and his work in the Army (and specifically in Germany), I think it’s safe to assume that Michael Michalko was familiar with Dr. Köhler work – and most (if not all) of the significant research in the same area. It’s also possible that he knew a little bit about Dr. Köhler’s experience with the Nazis. At the very least, he knew German history and (I imagine) he knew about the papers of Drs. Köhler and Stephenson and the experiments they cited in their work. Regarding those citations, it’s important to note that Dr. Stephenson’s introduction specifically references experiments and field observations that theoretically imply that the conclusions of the hypothetical “5 Monkeys” experiment could exist in a real life scenario. (In fact, those implications were part of Dr. Stephenson’s inspiration. You know, they established a hypothesis.) Finally, we know, based on Michael Michalko’s work in the public and private sectors, that he knows how to communicate and teach ideas.

So, it makes sense, that he would tell the story that he told. It’s a great story and we can easily see the truth of our lived experience with regard to violent conditioning in our own society. The thing is, while some people might focus on that lived truth – and others might focus on the fact that there’s no evidence the experiment ever happened – my focus today is a little different. I’m looking at how and why the story came to be; how it’s become part of some people’s culture; and how the belief that the story is verifiably true plays a part in our actions.

Remember, what we believe bridges the gap between what we conceive and what we achieve. This is true on an individual level and on a community/cultural level.

Some people tell the “5 Monkeys” story as a cautionary tale. Some people use it to underscore the importance of examining why they – individually and collectively – do the things they do. But a lot of people tell the story because they think it’s true. And, given the truth, I find it interesting that the “5 Monkeys” story highlights perceived male monkey behavior, but not the wisdom of observation exhibited by the female monkeys in Gordon R. Stephenson, et al, experiments. I also find it interesting that the “5 Monkeys” story doesn’t highlight the insight exhibited by the chimpanzees in Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments.

In the real life experiments, the chimpanzees and monkeys recognized that things change, from day to day and moment to moment. In the real life experiments, the primates were curious about their environment and their culture. They weren’t ever (really) passive, even when they weren’t directly engaging. Which brings me back to where we started: with childhood and the fact that we’ve all been children who inherited culture(s) and cultural understanding about our individual and collective communities.

Whether we like it our not, our lives are a reflection of our beliefs. Not, I might add, a reflection of what we say we believe or what we want to believe, but what we actually believe. And our beliefs are built around the stories we’ve been told and the stories we tell ourselves.

Stories… that sometimes aren’t actually true.

If we wish to imitate the physical sciences, we must not imitate them in their highly developed contemporary form. Rather, we must imitate them in their historical youth, when their state of development was comparable to our own at the present time. Otherwise we should behave like boys who try to copy the imposing manners of full-grown men without understanding their raison d’être, also without seeing that intermediate phase of development cannot be skipped.

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–  quoted from Chapter II: Psychology as a Young Science” in Gestalt Psychology: An Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology by Dr. Wolfgang Köhler

 

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practice.

### “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” ~ Rosa Parks ###

 

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