mon­key ac­crue

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - The New Mex­i­can

What hap­pens if you give mon­keys money and try to get them to use it to buy food? They will likely ig­nore the coins and look at you like you’re an id­iot. But if you keep at it ev­ery day for a cou­ple of months, they will learn to pay for food, and they will make some of the same fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions — good and bad — that peo­ple do.

That’s one of the things dis­cov­ered by Lau­rie Santos, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of psy­chol­ogy at Yale Uni­ver­sity. One pro­gram at the school’s Com­par­a­tive Cog­ni­tion Lab­o­ra­tory, which she di­rects, in­volves work­ing with 10 brown ca­puchin mon­keys. Santos talks about that work in an evening lec­ture on Thurs­day, April 29, pre­sented by the School for Ad­vanced Re­search.

She and Keith Chen, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics in Yale’s School of Man­age­ment, be­gan work­ing with mon­keys sev­eral years ago. The an­i­mals were soon buy­ing grapes, ap­ples, and Jell-O with sil­ver to­kens. And, like hu­mans, they tended to buy more treats when the price fell, when they no­ticed that one to­ken got them two Jell-O cubes in­stead of the usual one. Other re­sults of their re­search also re­vealed hu­man­like traits, ac­cord­ing to a 2005 story in The New York Times. The mon­keys did not pri­or­i­tize sav­ings. They re­sponded ir­ra­tionally to gam­bling sit­u­a­tions, stole to­kens when the op­por­tu­nity arose, and even used money for sex.

“My re­search,” ac­cord­ing to a bi­o­graph­i­cal state­ment at Santos’ Yale web page, “ex­plores the evo­lu­tion­ary ori­gins of the hu­man mind by com­par­ing the cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties of hu­man and non­hu­man pri­mates. It pro­vides an in­ter­face be­tween evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­ogy, and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science.” She also likes tak­ing pic­tures of an­i­mals’ feet. A short video spot on a PBS web se­ries called The Se­cret Life of Sci­en­tists re­veals that Santos has pho­tographed mon­key feet as well as those of tor­toises, gi­raffes, and blue-footed boo­bies.

For Santos, the mon­key busi­ness started in the spring of her fresh­man year at Har­vard, when she served as re­search as­sis­tant for Mark Hauser on the is­land of Cayo San­ti­ago, off the coast of Puerto Rico. Hauser (now a Har­vard Col­lege pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy, or­gan­is­mic and evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, and bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy and di­rec­tor of the school’s Cog­ni­tive Evo­lu­tion Lab) was work­ing with Rhe­sus mon­keys, in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether they share arith­metic skills with hu­mans.

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