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Money-using monkeys give insight into human economics

By Paul Magno     Aug 31, 2011 in Science
Working with capuchin monkeys, a Yale research team managed to teach the primates to use currency and, in doing so, unlocked several mysteries behind human beings' sometimes odd behavior with money.
The brainchild of Yale psychology professor, Laurie Santos, and Yale economist, Keith Chen, the seven-year study focused on discovering whether man's inclinations and weaknesses with money stemmed from learned behavior or if they were genetic traits developed through millions of years of evolution.
The first step involved teaching the capuchin monkeys how to barter silver coins, slightly bigger and thicker than a quarter, for food and assorted treats.
Santos and Chen were amazed at the ease with which the monkeys learned the new skill, even resembling careful shoppers as they thoughtfully chose whether apples, oranges, or other treats were the best buy for their shiny, new coin. The primates would even smell and inspect the fruits prior to purchase.
Then, as the monkeys settled into their "shopping" routine, the researchers started tweaking the marketplace by changing the amount of product delivered, alternating the consistency of the payout, and even delivering bonus specials to the capuchin consumers.
The end result shocked the research team and fell almost exactly in line with most respected economic theories and consumer market trends.
The study found that loss aversion was a greater driving force in the monkey marketplace than the promise of a potentially greater reward. When presented with the option of a low-risk, minimal, but secure payout or a potentially high-yield but riskier purchase, the monkeys chose to play it safe at a rate of about 2.7 to 1-- a rate completely indistinguishable from what you might find in a trial using human subjects.
The monkey money-handlers would fall in line with their human counterparts in nearly every money-influenced behavior, including many of the negative ones.
“One of the things we never saw in the Monkey Market was savings—just like with our own species. They always just spent all their cash at once,” says Santos. “The other thing, amazingly, was spontaneous evidence of larceny. They would rip off the tokens from each other and us at every opportunity.”
More about Monkey, capuchin monkey, Yale, Economics, simians