The Mythology of Conformity: Totem and Taboo

March 30, 2011 § 7 Comments

By Tai Carmen

The story goes like a joke: five monkeys and a banana. Or a parable: under the banana there was a ladder, and every time a monkey climbed the ladder to reach for the banana, he and the other monkeys in the group received a shock of cold water. Eventually no one reached for the banana at all.

In this famous experiment, monkeys conditioned not to pursue the banana were replaced one by one with unconditioned monkeys. Each time a new member of the group began to climb the ladder to get the forbidden fruit, the rest of the group dissuaded him by force, regardless of whether they themselves had experienced the cold water spray. The banana had become taboo.

Eventually the entire group was replaced with monkeys who had never experienced the water spray firsthand, yet the banana remained untouched. The conditioning had become self-perpetuating, independently functioning upon its own momentum.

Studies in group theory indicate that we naturally bend our opinions at least marginally if not majorly to conform to group values and standards. Who among us hasn’t found themselves laughing in a moment of group solidarity without quite getting the joke?

In the Asch Conformity Experiment, test subjects were placed in groups consisting of fake participants and asked a variety of questions. Such as, “Compare the length of A to an everyday object,” “Which line is longer than the other?” and “Which lines are the same length?” etc

When alone, the answers people gave were almost unanimously correct. In the groups of fake participants, however, when each person had to say their answer out loud, incorrect answers proffered confidently by fake group members caused test subjects to falter and give 30 % incorrect answers to these deceptively simple visual tests.

In his explosively titled work, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between The Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, Freud speculates that modern institutions such as family, law, and religion still closely resemble the tribal cultures from which they sprang, specifically in totemic projection and conformity achieved through the exercise of taboo.

Derived from the term “ototeman” in the Ojibwe language, meaning “brother-sister kin,” Totemism indicates the veneration of sacred objects as symbols. A totem is any animal, plant, or other object, natural or supernatural, which provides deeply symbolic meaning for a person or social group. A great example of modern totemism can be found in sports fans.

For Alan Watts the primary taboo in today’s culture is against knowing the true nature of the self, which he suggests is multi-dimensional and universally connected. “If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”

Watts elaborates, “Although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. […]We do not ‘come into’ this world. We come out of it, like leaves from a tree.”

In 1954 Robert Bannister was the first man recorded to run a mile in under four minutes. Though never before achieved, after Bannister proved it possible, the  four minute mile barrier was soon broken by others.

What are the grand, socially defining taboos that hold power today in your country? What taboos exist within your social culture? Do they make sense, or are the conditioned monkeys dissuading you from reaching for your banana?

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§ 7 Responses to The Mythology of Conformity: Totem and Taboo

  • This is really freaking great. Awesome post!🙂

  • Maria del mar Metrahi says:

    The Mythology of Conformity: Totem and Taboo
    Alan W. Watts, Asch Conformity Experiment, conformity, experiments in conformity, five monkeys, Freud, group theory, social identity, society, taboo, totemism
    What are the grand, socially defining taboos that hold power today in your country? What taboos exist within your social culture? Do they make sense, or are the conditioned monkeys dissuading you from reaching for your banana?
    What an interesting subject. Growing up in a very old country from parents grieving and recovering from a civil war and of strong religious traditions, I can say that I have a good idea of what are taboos, totemism and social identity. The question is why does exit, and is it really real or deceptive?
    As an answer to the first question, to me totemism represents cult, forbidden, mystery and hidden power. Man does not live alone, we are gregarious and we need one another, society starting from the family supports itself based on experience and order. In all times the power was held by the physically strongest individuals, in order to support their power created images that suggested a sense of fear and kept the rest of the group or outsiders under control, there was a strong hidden symbolism attached to the totems, we can see this in the oldest civilizations and religions. If a child learns that fire burns will not touch it and as he/she grows will make sure that those around that are significant to him/her will not touch it either. Even without the firsthand experience, based on what is taught by another individual emotionally incline to protect, the children will grow to respect and fear the fire. Is it fire bad? Certainly not, is one of the greatest wonders in nature and have wonderful properties yet the foolish use of fire has incredible damaging effects, even death, and the same happens with everything else. Would a simple family will want to keep a subject that trespasses certain rules “social totems” and cause pain and distress. Certainly now a days the family will try in the best of their ability to incorporate that member into the group by learning to respect those social totems and if it doesn’t will be rejected and either will have to seek another group that fits his believes or will become a rebel and in occasions end up in confinement under punishment, that is the very reason why the l individuals are trained and seek to be accepted under a social identity. As society develops and grows in resources and scientifically, some rudimentary Totems that were use to confine and control psychologically and spiritually the individuals are of not further use yet they are substituted by other advanced Totems like security systems, subliminary messaging and so on. Are we always aware of them? No, we grow with them and sometimes we incorporate their influence to the point to condition a healthy freedom by fear. This is the very reason why religions, cults and political power can be either progressive and supportive of the individual progress in society in its tridimensional level or destructive and oppressive. If we stop looking at a human being as an animal and clearly of different nature than animals we will understand that what is conceivable for animal behavior is clearly demeaning for human behavior. Let’s start looking at humanity with respect may be we will make some progress.

  • […] The conditioning of new monkeys continues after there are no originally conditioned monkeys because … […]

  • pk says:

    Terrif. I borrowed your Freud pic.

  • […] In 1954 Robert Bannister was the first man recorded to run a mile in …Source […]

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