Atheist Brain

exploring the cognitive foundations of religious belief

What Monkeys can Teach us About the Psychology of Indoctrination and Confirmation Bias


I stumbled across this post on Reddit yesterday which I thought succinctly summarized my (relatively basic) understanding of mimetic theory (the original post contains only the image reproduced below).

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Interesting for sure… I decided to dig up the original study.

Unfortunately, it appears the study described in the cartoon never took place!

The fabricated study described in the cartoon appears to have been inspired by a 1967 study titled “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys.”1

The methodology of the original study is drastically different from that of the cartoon. In the 1967 study 8 rhesus monkeys were separated into pairs. One of the monkeys was presented with a novel object and each time the monkey attempted to handle the object he or she was blasted with air (punished). Over the course of just a few attempts to handle the object, the monkey learned to fear and avoid the object.

A conditioned response was learned.

In each case, another monkey was inserted into the room with the conditioned monkey. In several cases the new monkey was admonished by the conditioned monkey when he or she attempted to approach the novel object. It is important to point out that this did not occur in every case. In some cases the unconditioned monkey’s lack of fear towards the object allowed the conditioned monkey to overcome his fear. The conditioned monkey was then able to approach and handle the novel object.

The cartoon is not backed up by the actual science.

The real lesson to be learned here (based on the articles more than 1400 upvotes) is that even atheist and skeptic communities are vulnerable to bad heuristics and biased thinking.

“[People] can be made to believe any lie because either they want to believe it’s true or because they are afraid it’s true.” – Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander — Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

Gordon 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).1

An interesting article from psychology today about this same cartoon.

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