When I (Brooks) was in college back in ancient times, the “executive monkey” study by Brady appeared in just about every introductory textbook. The results made so much sense they were considered psychological law.

Brady’s study, published in 1958 (before I went to college!), was pretty simple. Two monkeys were restrained in a device side-by-side. Whenever a light in front of them came on, a few seconds later they each simultaneously received an uncomfortable shock to their tails. One of the monkeys, however, could learn to press a button when the light came on, and the result would be that neither of them would receive the shock. This monkey, the one in control, was the executive. The control monkey couldn’t do a damn thing when the light came on but yell, “Press the button, press the button!”

The executive monkeys learned the button task easily, and the procedure continued for several trials per day over a number of days. Eventually, the trials ended and the monkeys were examined for stomach ulcers. The control monkeys were fairly clean. The executives, on the other hand, showed a significantly higher occurrence of ulcers.

Sixty years ago the results seemed obvious and fit the view of the harried company executive, always on the go, and under constant pressure to make decisions on which the future of the company depended. Those types of guys (and in the 60s, company CEOs were almost exclusively men), the ones who ran the companies and never seemed to slow down, also seemed to suffer a variety of medical complaints like ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Brady’s results fit the profile beautifully: being in control is hazardous to your health!

Brady’s study was a psychology-course standard until 1971 when Weiss tried to replicate Brady’s results with rats. Using the same type of experimental design, that is subjects receiving shocks unless one of them, the executive, performed a response that would avoid the shock for both of them, Weiss found precisely the opposite results from Brady: the executive rats ended up with fewer physical complications than the control rats.

So what’s going on here? Is this another example of fickle science that so many people love to point out when a scientific finding disturbs them? Not at all. It turns out that Brady violated the prime directive of any research attempting to determine a cause-effect relationship. Any psychology major worth her or his salt can tell you that such conclusions cannot be made unless subjects have been randomly assigned to groups. It turns out that Brady didn’t using random assignment.

What did he do? He gave all his monkey preliminary tests to see which ones were good at learning avoidance responses when threatened, and those monkeys were put in the executive group. His monkeys were expensive and he wanted to save time and make sure his executives would learn the button-pressing task. The more laid-back monkeys (“Here comes another shock. Big deal!”) were put in the control group. So, even before Brady began his procedure, his executives were probably neurotic, high-anxious types who were sensitive to stress and always on the alert for it. In short, they were more vulnerable to ulcers when stressed.

Weiss randomly assigned his rats to groups. His results showed what we now consider a new basic psychological principle: being in control and functioning in a predictable environment is less stressful than feeling helpless in an unpredictable world. Put yourself in Brady’s or Weiss’s study. Which group would you want to be in, executive or control? The former, of course (unless you’re a masochist or a helpless wimp). As executive you can sit there and relax, knowing that once that light comes on you can press the button and all is cool. You’re in charge; you’re the basic-training drill sergeant; you’re the boss.

If you’re in the control group, however, all you can do is sit there and hope the person in charge will watch out for your welfare. The uncertainty, the unpredictability, can be, to say the least, quite stressful.

Control as a key factor in effective coping is one of the principles we point to again and again in this blog. We also note, however, that control is limited to your actions and your thoughts. You can’t go around controlling everything and everyone, although some folks sure seem to try!

A final couple of words about Brady’s study. From a science perspective, his procedure, no random assignment, was terrible. And yet, his results made some sense about the overworked company executive suffering ill health because of stressful work habits. How come? Well, the simple answer is that life does not proceed by random assignment. CEOs are not really a random group of society; they are a specialized group. They don’t sleep much, they’re hyperactive, never truly relaxed, always thinking, planning, plotting. Like Brady’s executive monkeys, their hyper nature probably makes them vulnerable to health issues, not the fact that they’re in control. In other words, Brady’s non-random assignment of monkeys to groups probably reflects what happens in real life.

That reflection, of course, does not negate the fact that being in control is generally less stressful for us. And that’s the coping lesson: if we can find events that are realistically within our circle of control, and exercise that control,  we’re coping appropriately and we’re better off.

Finally, we should note that by today’s standards, Brady’s study was terribly unethical. I have really sanitized his procedure in my description of his study. In fact, his monkeys were subjected to unbearable stress (some might call it torture), which resulted in physical deterioration and even death. The study would never be permitted today because his procedure would not pass ethical standards required in 21st century animal research.

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