Escaping the The Monkey Trap

By Bryan Greetham.

Rodin’s Thinker at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Photo, Phil Hall


We are busy producing a generation of the most sophisticated recyclers of received opinion


In Robert Pirsig’s best-selling book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes ‘the old South Indian Monkey Trap’, which consists of a coconut, which has been hollowed out and chained to a stake. Inside there is some rice, which can be grabbed by reaching for it through a small hole. The hole is large enough to allow the monkey’s hand to go through, but too small for him to take his clenched fist back out once he has grabbed the rice. He’s suddenly trapped, not by anything physical, but by an idea. The principle ‘when you see rice, hold on tight’ has served him well, but has now turned against him.

We also find ourselves trapped by our ideas in exactly the same way. We struggle to accept climate change, because we are trapped by a certain idea of progress, which we can’t let go even though it has turned against us. As John Maynard Keynes put it, ‘The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.’1 We are all conventional thinkers trapped by our intuitions and routine patterns of thought.

In the 1990s and 2000s companies in the banking sector were successful through their acquisitions. Buy an underperforming company on the cheap, ruthlessly strip it of costs and you create value with a more successful company that produces the level of profits that shareholders are looking for. Yet in 2008 following the same established principle the directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland paid £48bn for parts of the Dutch bank ABN Amro and not only wrecked RBS, but threatened to bring down the whole of the British banking system.

Brown declared that, as a result of the ingenuity and creativity of bankers, ‘A new world order has been created’: we have the privilege of living in ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age’.

And it wasn’t as if this was an impetuous decision by the RBS board, which they regretted at leisure. They met to discuss it 18 times and still the directors were unanimous that the deal should go through. Like the trapped monkey, they relied on established patterns of expectations and applied a principle that had served them well, instead of analysing the evidence and taking a different course.

Yet they weren’t the only ones who failed to see what was coming. On the eve of the financial crash, neither the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, nor the opposition leader David Cameron, had any suspicions of what was about to happen. Gordon Brown declared that, as a result of the ingenuity and creativity of bankers, ‘A new world order has been created’: we have the privilege of living in ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age’.

Similarly, at the time when there were clear signs that the banking system was in trouble David Cameron was confidently declaring that, largely as a result of the bankers’ efforts, a new world economy had been created. The Left’s misguided belief in regulation had been thoroughly discredited, he claimed, ‘Liberalism’ had prevailed and the world economy was now more stable than for a generation.

the untapped potential of thousands of gifted students go to waste trapped, like the monkey’s clenched fist, in the routine rules and patterns of conventional thinking.

Even those with the expertise to predict it, failed to see what was coming on the eve of the crash, when there were obvious signs of what was about to happen. Recently the Bank of England released the minutes of their meetings before the crash, which revealed that they had no idea what was about to happen.

As this shows, we are all trapped by ideas and unexamined intuitions, even when it’s clear we are struggling to solve a problem and ought to find other ways of thinking. Over millions of years we have adapted to our environment to become routine, unreflective thinkers. For much of our existence our survival has depended on rules and patterns of behaviour well-tested by the thousands of generations before us.

Learning to flee without thought in response to a certain pattern of colours and movement that signalled a predator was essential for survival. Our neural circuits have been designed by natural selection to solve the problems our ancestors faced. They are programmed for survival, not to seek out truth. As evolutionary psychologists are fond of pointing out, our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.

modern education systems are designed to teach students what to think, not how to think.

The exceptions, of course, are those notable individuals, like Marc Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, who appear to be able to put aside routine thinking and produce deceptively simple ideas that totally transform our thinking and our way of life. A website on which we can exchange news and photos with family and friends – it couldn’t be simpler and we think, ‘I could have thought of that.’ And it’s true, you could, if only you had the skills of a smart thinker.

The greatest breakthroughs in our thinking, the revolutionary concepts that have so transformed our lives, have come from those who are smart thinkers. In 1905 a little known engineer, second class, at the Swiss patent office in Bern published four papers, which totally transformed the way we see the world. Albert Einstein had been turned down by every academic institution he had applied to, so he had no access to laboratories and knew nothing new, no more than anybody else. All he did was think differently. Like all smart thinkers, he challenged established concepts, like absolute space and time, created new, revolutionary concepts, like relativity, and forged surprising connections between ideas, like mass and energy, producing insights that were to transform our thinking.

we are all trapped by ideas and unexamined intuitions

The question is why is it so difficult for us all to think this way? Unfortunately, modern education systems are designed to teach students what to think, not how to think. Universities have always seen their primary responsibility as research, so, rather than teachers, they tend to appoint researchers, who only have a secondary responsibility to teach. This amounts largely to passing on their authoritative knowledge to students, not to develop their ability to think. A student then has the complementary role of recycling this authoritative opinion; showing that they understand it and can reproduce it accurately.

So, while we are busy producing a generation of the most sophisticated recyclers of received opinion, the untapped potential of thousands of gifted students go to waste trapped, like the monkey’s clenched fist, in the routine rules and patterns of conventional thinking.

1 J. M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936 (London: Snowball Publishing, 2012), Preface, p. viii.



Bryan Greetham

Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.

Currently Bryan is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. Much of his work has been in moral thinking, applied and professional ethics and in complex adaptive systems. His current research involves what we can learn about moral thinking from the perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust.

He is the author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophy, an introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.

https://www.bryangreetham.org.uk/ and https://www.smart-thinkers.com/



Categories: Bryan Greetham, Smart Thinking

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