What is learned behaviour?
A behaviour or action that is acquired is called learned behaviour. For example children learn to tie their shoes by watching their parents or classmates. Eating with a spoon and fork is another behaviour that happens by watching and practice. There are many such instances which we learn by observing the environment.
Learned behaviours have played a key role in the survival and thriving of our human race. But there is a flipside. They say too much of a good thing can be dangerous and the same goes with these behavioural mechanisms.
We pick up and hold on to behaviours that have outlived their purpose. Theorists call it cultural baggage and organisations are littered with instances of systems and process which continue to be followed – without no apparent reason. The clichéd statement – it has been always done this way – is a key indicator of the existence of learned yet meaningless organisational behaviors.
Let share with you a story which brings out the stark nature of learned behaviours.
This is a story of five monkeys – who found themselves in cage – 30 ft by 30 ft square and around 15 feet in height. From the ceiling of the cage hangs a big banana bunch. And right under this juicy bunch of bananas is a folding type ladder. The kind you get in the home depot – used for doing work around the house.
So here is the scene – five monkeys, a bunch of bananas and a ladder.
What do you think the monkeys will do?
Only a matter of time one of them climbs the ladder and goes for the bunch.
Right. But here is the twist.
The moment a monkey touches the ladder – ice cold water sprays on all the monkeys.
This monkey is zapped. Its totally startled – but the bananas are juicy – he goes for another try and – again ice cold water sprays.
Monkeys don’t particularly enjoy being sprayed with cold water. Now all the monkeys are wary. They don’t allow any monkey to move towards the ladder.
After a while another monkey gives in to the temptation and tries to go for the bananas. Immediately the other monkeys pounce on it – and prevent it from touching the ladder.
Pretty soon the monkeys become smart and stop any monkey from moving towards or touching the ladder.
Now we change the setting. The cold water spray goes. One of the monkeys is removed and a new one is introduced. The new one doesn’t know the story. He comes in sees the banana and off he goes. But to his surprise and horror all the other monkeys attack him and beat him up. Things cool off and the monkey makes another attempt – same result – he gets bashed up – and he has learnt his lesson.
Which is that if he tries climbing again he is going to be assaulted.
Next we remove one more monkey and introduce a new one. The same situation repeats. Infact now even the previous new comer enjoys bashing up this poor fellow. Without knowing why. This is learned Learned behaviour at its best.
One by one all the original monkeys are replaced with new ones and all the new entrants pick up the rules very quickly. They have no idea why they are beating up the new fellow , despite none of them have ever been sprayed with cold water.
The upshot is that no monkey approaches the ladder. The bananas are safe.
Suppose if we were to ask one one of the monkeys in – monkey language offcourse – as to why they were beating up the fellows who went for the ladder ? what would they reply ?
The reply would most likely be “because that’s the way it has always been done.”
Perhaps all it needed to break this chain of events was for one of the later monkeys to ask why?.
But I guess that would be asking for too much.
We encounter learned behaviours everyday: processes, procedures, policies, best practices, design patterns, standards, etc. These are behaviors that developed as a result of a certain environmental need.
…but over time the environment changed. But the behaviour continued.
Only by challenging our old assumptions will we ever develop new ideas else it will be Status Quo.