Mental Model: The Hundredth Monkey Effect

The Hundredth Monkey Effect Mental ModelIn social evolution, there is a mental model that describes the moment that knowledge, behavior, or belief reaches a tipping point (when the “100th monkey” is added), and instantaneously spreads throughout society so that it reaches the rest of a population without being taught, becoming common.

The original research involving the hundredth monkey effect has been discredited.  In fact, it turned out to be bunk. It was thought that monkeys on an island learning how to wash sweet potatoes reached a tipping point at which the knowledge travelled to a different population of monkeys across the water, who suddenly “became aware” of this knowledge without witnessing the skill.  This resulted in many bizarre interpretations of the hundredth monkey effect theory, incorporating it into new age cult beliefs (e.g., humanity only has to reach a critical mass of ‘believers’ before some cosmic event happens).

[leaderad]In the experiment, it turned out that at least one of the monkeys from an island had gone to the other island to bathe, meaning it was possible the second population observed the former monkey engaging in potato washing.  Furthermore, only the young monkeys tended to pick up the new skill of potato washing and, as the older monkeys died off, the percentage of the monkey population engaging in potato washing increased.  Far from being sudden, the increase happened over the course of several years.

Theoretically, the hundredth money effect could be possible if humans had the ability to pick up on electrical impulses from the brain activities of others, much like a shark can sense a heartbeat in water from miles away.  It still may prove true in certain evolved lifeforms since the possession of such a trait would seem to be advantageous from a survival standpoint.

However, for humans in the present time, the lesson is that, in reality, the hundredth monkey effect was merely a mistaken observation of the tipping point phenomenon as well as Darwin’s assertion that adaptability to change was the secret to survival for a species.

For my own purposes, I think there is a second lesson to learn from of the hundredth monkey effect.  That is, when conditions are similar, certain events are likely to manifest themselves in similar ways.  It would be possible, in the right circumstances, for two islands of monkeys to learn to wash potatoes without interacting if they both found themselves introduced to the new food source and there was a biological need to engage in the behavior.  Comparable genetics, environment, needs, inputs, and variables result in a somewhat similar outcome.  We see this with people like Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla inventing the radio at the same time.  Earlier advances, similar global conditions, comparable minds, resulted in a sudden ‘Eureka!’ moment.

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  • Alexander Davis

    I think the more accurate term for this is Parallel Evolution. I first learned about it in competitive gaming, as given the constraints of the game, optimal strategies that were identical would appear in all parts of the world, without the players learning from each other. The strategies evolve in parallel. Aptly named.

    The game was Magic the Gathering, but it can be applied to almost all strategic games.

  • sky_

    The name is convergent evolution. Different species in far away but otherwise similar habitats developed similar characteristics (google “Cacti and euphorbias evolution”).