Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Are Monkeys More Rational Than Humans?

See The Hard Science of Monkey Business by AMY DOCKSER MARCUS of The Wall Street Journal. It is about the research that Yale professor Laurie Santos and the economic experiments she does with primates (Capuchin monkeys). Excerpts:
"The primate lab is home to 10 "shockingly smart" brown Capuchin monkeys trained to trade tokens for food. It was a short leap for Dr. Santos and her team to decide to study how monkeys make decisions about money."

"In one experiment, they gave each monkey a wallet filled with 12 flat aluminum tokens, monkey money that the animals could trade for food. Right away, the scientists saw the similarities to human behavior. When researchers slashed the price on certain foods, the monkeys sought out the best deal. They also typically spent all their cash at once and didn't bother to save.

Then researchers decided to test a more complex economic theory which shows that people do not judge price in a vacuum. Sitting with the team at the coffee shop, Dr. Santos could see how the concept worked in her own life. Many days, she feels guilty about spending $2.20 on a cup of coffee. But when she looks up at the chalk board listing drink prices, the Nutella Latte goes for $3.85 and the Ginger Snap is $4.15. "My $2 cup doesn't seem as expensive anymore," she said.

Monkeys make similar assessments. In one experiment, a researcher showed a monkey two pieces of apple but handed over one in exchange for a token. A second researcher showed one piece of apple and gave the slice to the monkey for the token. The monkeys strongly preferred to trade with the second researcher. They did not like being offered two apple pieces and then only getting one."

"Researchers wondered whether monkeys, like humans, desire an expensive item more. For the same number of tokens, the monkeys could choose whether they got a tiny square of blue Jell-O or a big chunk of red Jell-O. Later, the monkeys were allowed to choose which kind they wanted. If the monkeys were like humans, they would have gone for the blue Jell-O, the more "expensive" choice. But the monkeys gorged happily on both.

The researchers are still gathering and analyzing the data. One possibility: Human taste preferences are based on many factors, whereas the monkeys' are not. Some might argue that human economic behavior is more advanced since it includes "culture and meta-awareness" in decision-making, said Dr. Santos. There's another, less flattering possibility too. "The monkeys," she said, "are more rational.""

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