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How to spot a monkey trap—and avoid it
By George A. Ricker

In parts of Asia, and other places in the world as well, indigenous people use a method for trapping monkeys that is simplicity itself.

To make the trap, you must first hollow out a gourd, leaving an opening just large enough for a monkey’s open paw to go through. Place a sweet treat—or some other food monkeys are partial to—inside the gourd, then attach a vine to the gourd and stake the other end of the vine to the ground somewhere out of sight.

An unsuspecting monkey smells the treat inside the gourd and reaches in to collect it. However, the opening, which was just large enough for the critter’s open paw to go in, is too small to allow its clenched paw to pass back through. No matter how much the monkey yanks, he cannot escape as long as he tries to hang on to the treat.

Meanwhile, the hunter who set the trap comes along, collects the monkey, and, presumably, heads back home in search of a cooking pot and a fire. There will be monkey meat tonight.

I first read about monkey traps in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s version of the trap uses a hollowed out coconut and rice, but the principle is the same.

A ‘values’ trap

The trap works because the monkey is focused on obtaining the food inside and doesn’t understand that the price of trying to obtain that particular morsel will be its own freedom, its own survival. Monkeys are programmed by evolution to forage and grab food wherever they find it. It’s not that the monkey is stupid. It’s just that letting go seldom occurs to it.

Somehow, the image of the monkey, desperately yanking and hauling, trying to pull free but still clutching that handful of food as the hunter approaches closer and closer, has stayed with me through the years. The monkey is caught by its own rigid values, not by the physical structure of the trap.

And before you start complimenting yourself on your own superiority as the representative of a more evolved species, you might want to rethink your assumptions. People get caught in monkey traps all the time. I’ll bet the streets of any major city are full of them. You may have been caught by one or two yourself. I know I have.

Usually the traps that catch us are more subtle. After all, people are smarter than monkeys. Aren’t we?

Some people traps

The big monkey trap, the one which dooms the monkey and can snare us if we aren’t careful, is short-term thinking—the inability to place immediate events into the context of what is in our long-term interest.

If the monkey thinks about it, his obvious choice will be to let go of the rice and get the heck out of there. After all, a free monkey will have another shot at food. Captured monkeys have no freedom to make such choices. Alas, monkeys, like some people, have no ability to look beyond the moment.

All of which leads to a subcategory of the short-term thinking monkey trap. It is the decision-making monkey trap.

People often seem paralyzed by making decisions, even simple ones. It is not that most of the decisions people are asked to make are that momentous. The reason for the paralysis is that many people are scared to death of taking the responsibility for making a mistake.

“Better to make no decision at all than to make a bad one,” they think. That attitude just reinforces the short-term thinking trap. The trick then becomes to avoid making decisions, to shift the burden to someone else so that if things go wrong, you won’t be held accountable. Indecision becomes a prize in itself, a way to avoid responsibility.

A variation of the decision-making monkey trap is the one created when you refuse to acknowledge that the decision you made was a bad one. People in authority positions seem especially prone to that one.

They have the rice of that bad decision clutched tightly and can see the consequences closing in. But still they hang on, convinced that if they let go, they somehow will lose more than if they just admit the mistake and move on.

Better to let go.

Lots of traps for the unwary

There are all sorts of monkey traps out there. Life is full of them. It’s a veritable minefield of snares for the unwary, waiting to make monkeys of us all. Some are hidden. Others are easy to spot. But all of them depend upon our static thinking, our inability to see the true nature of a situation.

You see people yanking and hauling on that fistful of rice all of the time, desperate to escape the danger they see approaching, but unable to release what is really only a trinket in order to gain the greater prize.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid a monkey trap is not to take the bait at all. Having taken the bait, the second strategy is to learn to quickly identify the situation for what it is and get out of it. A third approach, one that only works if you have some time, is to beat the trap.

The monkey, if he has the time and brainpower to work on it, will realize that by turning the coconut the right way he can dump the rice on the ground and take it with him. It depends on how quickly the monkey can analyze the situation—and how rapidly the hunters are closing in—whether or not that strategy will be successful. But it’s the rare monkey who can beat the trap. Most monkeys don’t see that answer, which seems so obvious to us.

So here’s hoping you learn to spot the monkey traps life puts in front of you and to beat them when you can.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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