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Resistance to Change: “We’ve Always Done it That Way”

November 13, 2013

By Leslie Durr, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

For therapists who work with long-standing groups or as consultants for organizations, the admonition to “start where the system is” seems fundamental, just as in working with an individual. 

So, you start with an assessment of current practices – both the formally stated ones in the Policy & Procedure Manual and the informal ones garnered by talking to people. You may  need to probe gently and persistently for the latter, as few people want to admit that what really happens is different from policy. 

In response to the consultant’s question about why something is done, one of the more surprising things to hear from educated, highly competent people is, “We’ve always done it that way.” They simply cannot explain the rationale – they only know that it would be worrisome to deviate from that norm. 

Recently, a story has been circulating on the Internet that can help to explain this phenomenon. It is a much-simplified report of research performed in the 1960s on a group of monkeys by G. R. Stephenson:  

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under the banana. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana. 

As soon as he touches the stairs, researchers spray all the other monkeys with cold water. 

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result... all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. 

Now, put the cold water away. 

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. 

The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, all the other monkeys assault him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted. 

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. 

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm, because he is now part of the "team" and has learned the rules. 

Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. 

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairs for the banana. If they could talk, they would simply say, “We’ve always done it that way.” 

Come to think of it, isn’t this phenomenon the same as an individual continuing to live out “the rules” from their family of origin without subjecting them to critical thinking?  Despite causing distress, people often have adopted a set of irrational ideas that continue to frame their experience. And the strange part is that they may never have personally experienced consequences from having tested the rules. Like the monkeys, they just know. 

Teaching patients to discover and dispute these beliefs is at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy. Examples of commonly held irrational beliefs include:

  • Everyone should like me or I’m worthless.
  • If I live a good life and do what is expected, my life will go well.
  • Bad things shouldn't happen to good people.
  • Good things shouldn’t happen to bad people.
  • Life should always be fair.
  • People only look out for themselves.
  • If I make a mistake, I am a failure.
  • If I’m not perfect, I can’t be forgiven.
  • If I work hard, I will be happy.

Having learned “the rules” without having witnessed any acts confirming or disputing them, it’s no wonder patients find it hard to find the courage to make necessary changes.  And, once having questioned the irrational rules, many people don't realize that repetition is needed to train the brain to react differently to situations…over and over. 

As a result, they often mistakenly believe that recognizing the error in thinking and correcting it a few times will create a change in their life. After people have seen some initial benefit, they may believe that it isn't necessary to continue practicing the methods that led to that benefit. And then they may drift back to “We’ve always done it that way.” 

To be complete, therapy must include information about why it is important to continue to practice new ways of behaving. 

Have you experienced the phenomenon of the five monkeys and resistance to change? 


Stephenson GR. 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; 1967: 279-288.

Leslie Durr, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC is an advanced practice psychiatric-mental health nurse with a private psychotherapy practice in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors.

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