Hundredth Monkey Effect: How Marketing Can Change Behavior

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Some indigenous peoples, among them the Australian Aborigines, believe in the existence of kind of invisible envelope that surrounds and permeates everything on Earth. Scientists have been examining this idea for decades, though unfortunately, it is as hard to prove scientifically as it is to disprove. The best-known aspect of this enquiry is the so-called hundredth monkey effect.

The research dates back to 1952, when a team of scientists began observing a colony of monkeys on the Japanse island of Koshima. In one experiment, the scientists threw some peeled sweet potatoes in the sand. Monkeys love sweet potatoes but obviously not covered in sand that gets between their teeth.

One of the females in the group named Imo, was the first to start washing the potatoes in water. Soon, all her relatives acquired this skill, and eventually so did the other monkeys on the island. After a while, the number of ingenious monkeys reached what is called a critical mass.

The South African biologist Lyall Watson, who later analysed the findings of the Japanese primatologists, rather arbitrarily designated this number as a hundred. After this number was exceeded all monkeys became capable of washing the potatoes, regardless of whether they were taught the skill or not. Monkeys from other islands also started washing their potatoes. Watson described the 30-year research project focused on the Macaca fuscata monkey in his bestseller, Lifetide: a Biology of the Unconscious.

In this book, he reached the conclusion that there has to be some sort of morphogenetic structure or field that envelops the islands and through which the monkeys are able to communicate. Mainstream scientists express doubts about the quality of this research, calling it unscientific, and thus generating even more public interest in the work of their unorthodox colleagues.

Marketing for Behavioral Change

From a communications perspective, the critical mass theory or the hundredth monkey effect can be used to make sure that your messages and actions are heard, understood and reciprocated as an organization. The key to achieving a critical mass is to have a compelling vision and narrative that focuses on both what you say, and how you say it. The theory can also be applied to almost every sociological change – big or small.

To make sure you reach the critical mass you need to have a deep understanding of your target audience. You have to understand why they are engaged in the behaviour they are involved in. Once you identify the behaviour that keeps them there, the next step is to find motivations that will make it even more compelling for them to make that behaviour change. To do this effectively, you have to identify the barriers preventing them from adopting a new behaviour, or abandoning a negative one.

Polio Immunization Campaign

In 1995, following the Global Polio Eradication Initiative of the World Health Organization (1988), India launched Pulse Polio immunization program with Universal Immunization Program.

The initiative covered every individual in the country through an improved social mobilisation plan. India has nearly 175 million+ children under the age of five who needed to be covered under the immunization program. The campaign to termed effective had to reach every part of its target audience, not just with the communication message, but also with the product (the inoculation dosage, in this case).

The team behind the project had to set-up immunizations booths at various locations across the country. Each booth had three volunteers and cater to around 200 children. If fewer children turned up than the expected 200 on an immunisation day, volunteers would go around the locality. They would visit households in the locality to administer polio drops to children along with a stern reminder to not miss the Pulse Polio Immunisation Days (PPID) in the future.

Ogilvy India launched the campaign for Polio a decade back aptly titled as “Do Boond Zindagi Ki” (Two Drops of Life). The team faced several issues as the rumours about vaccinations varied by area. Some believed that vaccinating newborns, children who are ill, or previously vaccinated children was not safe. There were also rumours that the polio drops were made from the blood of pigs, dogs, or mice, or from pig fat.

Pulse Polio Eradication Campaign, 2002

When everything else did not get the required results, the campaign managers decided to bring Amitabh Bachchan (the ambassador of the campaign) in his film avatar that he’s most remembered for — the angry young man (though that was many decades ago). Instead of pleading with their target audience they decided to get annoyed with them. During the study to evaluate the success of the campaign, one rural woman apparently told the team “Amitabhji bahut naaraz tha isi liye humne pila diya,” (Amitabh was very upset, hence I decided to give polio drops to my child).

In 2014 World Health Organization declared India a polio-free country, since no cases of wild polio been reported in for five years. Nearly one million volunteers continue to work to keep India polio-free on every Pulse Polio Immunisation Days (PPID). It took almost two decades for the campaign to reach its critical mass before the team started seeing viable results.

Critical Mass Theory, Hundredth Monkey Effect and Network Effect

Behavioural change of any form needs to start small and proceed with baby steps. By breaking the larger task into small steps, we make an impossible behaviour change feel possible.

Network effect states that a product or service becomes more valuable to its users as more people start using it. Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, mentions in his book Diffusion of Innovations, there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass.

Rogers believes that there are four elements that influence the adoption of an idea: the innovation itself, communication channels, time, and a social system. 

While the hundredth monkey effect myth continues to be a topic of discussion. The spontaneous transmission of a cultural trait across space without contact needs to be proven.

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