The Hundredth Monkey Effect – Or, Why I’m a Skeptic

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Several years ago, I discovered a curious statistic: “ninety percent of all salespeople never bother to ask for the business.”

If it were true, I thought, I had the key for fixing almost every sales productivity problem. I’d simply embed an admonishment into my sales training sessions. Something like, “If you take away one thing from today, it’s ask for business! Voila! Problem solved!

The instant I read the stat, I began checking job boards, expecting to see gobs of help-wanted postings from companies seeking closers. Nothing. I looked elsewhere, seeking start-ups exploiting this massive void. Zero. I perused listings of independent reps, searching for “heavy hitters” whose primary skill was moving a skittish buyer from the threshold of ‘I accept,’ into the transactional end-zone. Zilch, too. Something was amiss.

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Like dandelion seeds driven helter-skelter in the wind, the 90 percent assertion quickly spread. I found it cropping up everywhere. Mentioned in conversations, bulleted in PowerPoint slides, and pounded home emphatically during sales keynotes. I surmised that this factoid had taken root because it seemed so plausible. “Yeah, I’ve worked with timid salespeople. I just had no idea it was that many. Wow.” Perhaps through its ubiquity, nobody questioned the assertion, or how it might have been derived.

Eventually, I learned that the statistic was a fabrication – created by Lee Iacocca as a catchy synthesis for why companies don’t win orders. Many took his quip literally. I understand why. Society has a ravenous appetite for statistical fact. But with that hunger comes a suspension of skepticism. A dangerous foible, because statistics impart gravitas and trust, even when the numbers are rancid. Enter the purveyors of informational snake oil, armed with an awesome arsenal of social media tools. A person who wants to goad others into a desired action only needs an online presence, a clever imagination, and the ability to construct a good sentence. Here’s a useful template:

[Panic-inducing adjective], research shows that [specific percentage] of [generalized noun] never [vague outcome that most people want really, really badly].

By filling in some words, a la Mad Libs, one can construct a basic persuasive statement: Amazingly, research shows that 38% of B2B salespeople never achieve a second meeting with a client.” Or, Astonishingly, research shows that over 84% of entry-level marketing staff never get promoted into a senior management position.”

My goal isn’t to malign research. It’s to illustrate how easy it is to concoct credible-sounding statements to make something sound bad, or seem insufficient. Without appropriate skepticism, assertions of fact that are patently false or illogical can flourish, corroding our understandings, and undermining our decisions.

People learn skepticism in childhood. My earliest memory was an Aesop’s fable, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. The message was clear: things aren’t always what they seem. Discover the truth, or suffer the consequences.

But what is a skeptic? “A person who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it,” wrote Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things, and founder of the website, Skeptic.com. Shermer writes that healthy skepticism means balanced thinking. “The key to skepticism is to navigate the treacherous straits between ‘know nothing’ skepticism and ‘anything goes’ credulity by continuously and vigorously applying the methods of science. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to test natural explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement.”

My skepticism antennae seldom stray from high alert. Almost daily, I find something that causes me to ask, “really?” Many readers will find this example familiar: “Fully 60 to 70 percent of content churned out by b-to-b marketing departments today sits unused,” according to a Sirius Decisions survey. Using Google Search for this exact quote, I found almost 3,000 references. A sampling of the titles:

13 Stunning Stats about Content Marketing
Wanna Get Your Content Manager Fired?
Content Marketing Is Still Failing to Drive Sales

“When you’re telling a story, it’s natural to pick the most vivid and persuasive detail,” Jordan Ellenberg, author of How not to be Wrong, wrote in an article titled, The Tricks of Lying with Data. “But providing the impressive number without conceding the existence of the unimpressive ones is a kind of numerical malpractice.” Clearly, Professor Ellenberg never held a job in B2B sales, or as a trade association lobbyist. But he nailed an uncomfortable truth: few professionals in those fields can attest to achieving success without having engaged in such computational artifice.

If the content churned out by marketing departments is defined as communication to attract, acquire, and engage a defined target audience or market, with the objective of driving profitable customer action, that material could be a . . . Tweet, blog, YouTube video, podcast, website, web page, landing page, telemarketing script, brochure, advertisement, pop-up ad, white paper, trade journal article, spec sheet, spreadsheet, ROI calculator, corporate profile, Facebook post, LinkedIn share, competitive analysis, success story, snapchat, email, text message, and more . . . That’s a lot of content creation – or, should I say, innovation, which normally has a pretty high failure rate. Hmmm. Now that 60 – 70% finding seems less stunning, and more down to earth.

And we still haven’t peeled back the remainder of the statistical onion! What about the definition of used? When the stat is bandied about, nobody clarifies the threshold. One view, or share? Ten or more? Thousands? These questions remain unanswered amidst the breathless hype about unused content. So if you’re a CMO, which would be a more reassuring indicator – 90 percent of your marketing content getting used perfunctorily? Or 30 percent of your department’s production getting widely shared and distributed across multiple industries? To me, the latter sounds just peachy.

Other examples: The Sirius Decisions finding that “67% of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally.” And a related finding from CEB, “57% of the purchase decision is complete before a customer even calls a supplier.” Each one merits similar scrutiny, in particular because the terms are slathered with semantic fuzz. Which activities define a buyer’s journey? What distinguishes a buyer’s journey from a procurement or project implementation? Which steps comprise a purchase decision? These meanings vary not only between companies, but within them.

Hundredth Monkey Effect. At least Sirius Decisions attempts a clarification. “The 67 percent statistic in no way says that no one talks to a salesperson before getting halfway through the buying cycle, but this is how some have interpreted it.” Sounds like the famous Hundredth Monkey Effect – a situation when someone misrepresents or misinterprets a study, story, or finding, and the error becomes promulgated.

The Hundredth Monkey story was recounted in a forward that Lyall Watson wrote for a 1975 book, Rhythms of Vision, by Lawrence Blair. In his forward, Watson references research on a colony of macaque monkeys in Japan. The two scientists who conducted the research had observed that young monkeys in the troop learned how to wash sweet potatoes, and that the washing behavior spread to other young monkeys through the practice of observation and repetition. Hardly a breakthrough discovery at the time.

But Watson warped the scientists’ original interpretation by concluding that “the researchers observed that once a critical number of monkeys was reached, i.e., the hundredth monkey, this previously learned behavior instantly spread across the water to monkeys on nearby islands,” according to Wikipedia. Strange as this “spontaneous generation” of learning sounds, others latched onto Watson’s version, and from there, it spread. “Author Ken Keyes, Jr. titled his book about the effects of nuclear war The Hundredth Monkey. The book presented the hundredth monkey effect story as an inspirational parable, applying it to human society and the effecting of positive change.”

So, a research finding about how macaque monkeys use observation and repetition in learning to wash sweet potatoes mutated into erroneous statements and extrapolations. A phenomenon well-known in marketing research and other social sciences. *

Another popular finding leads decision makers down the wrong highway. “A whopping 45.4 percent of salespeople miss their quota.” (There’s that template, again!) The problem here is not necessarily that the statistic has flaws, but that the interpretations can be very misguided. Mostly, people assert a litany of salesperson shortcomings, or tactical breakdowns. Or, they over-simplify, as in proclaiming insight into its “Number-One cause.” Few cite a different basis for the problem – one that is equally likely, and similarly deleterious: horrible planning. Even fewer dissect it. Easier to run down the If-we-just-had-better-salespeople pathway, and it ruffles fewer C-Suite feathers.

As Jordan Ellenberg wrote, “In the era of data journalism, truth is not enough. We need [writers] who can check not only a number’s value but also its meaning. Unless we ensure that, we’re going to be reading a lot of data-driven stories that are true in every particular – but still wrong.”

* Note: It was not until 1985, when Elaine Myers published an article, The Hundredth Monkey Revisited, that Watson’s interpretation was debunked.

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