Laurie Santos gives some monkeys money and learns what kind of shoppers they are.

Pictures of Feet

Laurie Santos looks down, points her camera, and finds a new way to see animals.

30 Second Science with Laurie Santos

We give Laurie Santos 30 seconds to describe her science, and she says it feels like speed-dating.

10 Questions for Laurie Santos

We ask Laurie Santos 10 questions and learn how she scares her students.

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Monkeynomics revisited

In her “Monkeynomics” video, Laurie Santos explains that when it comes to economics, monkeys are “smart in the same way humans are smart.” Laurie’s research demonstrates that, if given the opportunity, monkeys—just like humans—will try to take advantage of sales and get the most for their money.

But just as monkeys are smart like us, Laurie’s found that monkeys are dumb like us, too. Her research shows that in terms of economic thinking, monkeys make the same kinds of mistakes that we make—in fact, the kinds of mistakes that can lead to cataclysmic worldwide meltdowns. Says Laurie:

“Many of the kinds of errors that led to things like the financial collapse are exactly the kinds of bias strategies we see in our monkeys. So we often can just look at the newspaper, and it almost looks like we’re back in the lab working with our capuchins."

So if we see it in monkeys and we see it in ourselves, does that mean faulty economic thinking might actually be hard-wired in us primates? Would an orangutan cash in his 401k? Would a lemur run up a huge credit-card debt? And why do we humans make the same dumb choices… over and over again?

The genius of accidents

There are some fields—science is one of them and so is music—which our culture typically regards as being all about natural genius. Either you’re born with the magic or you’re not. And if you’re not, the best you can probably hope for is to sell insurance… or to make lattes… or if you’re lucky, you can produce a web series for NOVA (the ceiling for the non-gifted… well, our ceiling). The fact of the matter, though, is that there aren’t very many Einsteins or Mozarts. And we can’t manufacture them either. There’s never been another Jupiter Symphony or an extra -special version of relativity. But still, there are folks among us who—everyday—create beautiful new music and do brilliant, groundbreaking science. Hmmm. Natural genius? An undeniable path? Destiny?

We thought about all this after our interview with Laurie Santos. Laurie is an extremely accomplished scientist—you don’t become a professor and run a lab at Yale University if you aren’t—but like most scientists, she doesn’t see herself as some kind of magical natural genius. In fact, she used the word “accident” more than once to describe her education and her career trajectory. Laurie ended up at Harvard for her undergraduate years, she told us, “by accident ”….

“You know, I did very well in high school and grew up in Massachusetts and thought that I would to go to college somewhere near home. And it just turned out that with the financial packages I got—well, first of all, I got into Harvard, but also I just got lots of financial aid from them. So it made sense to go.”

Laurie shows us her favorite monkey image
Once she got to Harvard, though, it must have been immediately apparent that this was the place where she’d become the master scientist she was destined to be. Right?

Well, no….

“My journey to actually doing this kind of science [experimental psychology] was a little bit accidental. I actually started out wanting to be a lawyer. But when I started in undergrad, the pre-law class I wanted to take was full. And so I went to my freshman advisor very upset, you know, ‘what am I going to do? I’m not going to be a lawyer.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you just take Introduction to Psychology? That’s a good course for lawyers.’ And then I took that course and it just stuck. And from there, I ended up taking more courses where I started thinking more about primates—one of them was the course my eventual graduate advisor Marc Hauser would teach—and that was actually the course that I teach now at Yale. And it started on the first day, when he put up PowerPoint slides of a beautiful Caribbean island [where he did his primate research], and he said, ‘I’m always looking for research assistants.’ And I think that afternoon I wrote an e-mail that said, ‘Look, Professor Hauser, I would like to work with you.’ And it’s kind of funny, because now I get those e-mails from my students.”

OK, so maybe the genius is in how people take advantage of the accidents.

Ask Laurie your questions

Q: Why do you state that we evolved on the Savannah, as if that was the only place and we stopped there?

Laurie Satos (LS): I didn’t mean to imply that we had stopped evolving when we left the savannah. My point was just humans are really not specialized for the environments in which we find ourselves today– modern cities with electricity and facebook and the like. If we really want to understand how our cognitive mechanisms were shaped, its best to go back much further (and even further than the savannah for many traits!)

Q: From your primate studies, have you been able to form an opinion as to how much “free will” humans actually have? Doesn’t our DNA predispose us to certain personality traits, thought patterns, and reactions?

LS: A great question, but a really hard one. The more we learn about human cognition, the more we realize that much of the way we see the world and make decisions is controlled by lots of unconscious processes that are outside of our awareness. For a great review of this work, check out Dan Wegner’s book “The Illusion of Conscious Will” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)

Q: I wondered if the same would be true if you gave them the choice of buying tools or a tent kind off a house or property. Also was there any variation in the sexes, like in humans men and woman don’t shop the same or are interested in the same stuff?

LS: There is some evidence that capuchin monkeys are willing to “pay” for tools. Gregory Westergaard and his colleagues have shown that capuchins are willing to use their to tokens to buy tools that they can use to get food later (e.g., a stick that they can use to dip into a container with juice, etc). So monkeys can use their token economy to buy tools as well. As for sex differences, so far we haven’t observed any differences between the purchases made by make and female monkeys. But with only a few monkey “shoppers” it might be hard to see such differences in our studies.

Q: If monkeys had lives like us (for instance, if they had houses, jobs, money, and clothes), do you think they would be happy? Would they go out of control? Also, what would happen if you tried to keep a monkey as a pet?

LS: It always hard to say what would make our monkeys “happiest,” because it’s hard for them to tell us. But if I had to guess, I’d say that monkeys are most likely to be the most comfortable/happy in their natural environment. Keeping any primate as a pet is a BAD idea. Unlike dogs and cats, primates are NOT domesticated animals. They may be cute, but they can be very dangerous, as evidenced by the tragic case this past February of woman who was mauled by a pet chimpanzee. For a really well-argued article about why primate pets are bad, see this recent guest column by my colleague, Brian Hare.

Q: You mention in the text that monkeys are ‘dumb’ like us too– “Many of the kinds of errors that led to things like the financial collapse are exactly the kinds of bias strategies we see in our monkeys.” I was wondering specifically what types of errors they make? And if we are hardwired the same way monkeys are, then would it make sense to get an experimental psychologist on the White House economic team?

LS: We’ve observed lots of economic biases in our monkey subjects. One of the most salient ones is what economists call “loss aversion,” a bias that involves paying too much attention to losses. There’s lots of work suggesting that humans worry more about going into the red than they should, which leads us to make lots of errors (not investing enough in the stock market, etc). We’ve found that monkeys show similar biases. You can read about this work in more detail here . As for getting a psychologist on the White House team, I love your idea. Many researchers have actual argued that policy-makers need to take these evolved biases seriously. For a great introduction to this work, check out the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

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