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.