This may all be just a bunch of monkey business, but Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (4-1-2012, C11) had a great article about the consumer behavior of monkeys (Capuchins to be more precise).1 Laurie Santos, a young scientist at Yale University, attempts to better understand the economic behavior of humans by studying ten Capuchin monkeys in her primate lab – to be more precise, in her “Comparative Cognition” laboratory.
Santos and her staff trained their charges to use tokens (e.g., money) to buy food. Her earlier studies of monkeys led her to conclude that, “You can’t watch them without realizing they care about the same things we do”.
In one memorable study, the monkeys were given twelve flat aluminum tokens (“monkey money”) that they could use to purchase food. Experimenters found that when the price of a particular food was reduced, the little critters searched for the best deal. And, consistent with most of their human counterparts, the Capuchins were not likely to save any money and spent their stash in a hurry. Like many of us, money appeared to burn a hole in their proverbial pockets.
But, here’s where the similarities between monkey and human commerce might diverge. The monkeys were given the choice, for the same number of tokens, to purchase a smaller square of blue Jell-O or a much larger square of red Jell-O. The idea being tested was whether monkeys, like humans, would prefer the more expensive blue Jell-O over the cheaper red Jell-O. But, however intuitively appealing this type of thinking might be, this was not to be the case. The little darlings ate either Jell-O with equal gusto. Some may be prone to argue that monkeys don’t have the mental capacity to make such complex decisions, or, as Santos quipped, the monkeys may simply be “more rational” as consumers than us two-legged types.
1 Source: Amy Dockser Marcus, “The Hard Science of Monkey Business,” Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, March 31 – April 1, 2012.