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Ask Laurie Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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If you don’t ask Laurie Santos a question, she might take a picture of your feet.

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Q: Judi Hild

Why do you state that we evolved on the Savannah, as if that was the only place and we stopped there? Not a biggie, just kinda caught my attention. Love the feet pix, esp. the Galapagos tortoise toes, keep up the great work!

A: Laurie

Hi Judi, Thanks for keeping me honest here. 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: Paula Zitzelberger

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?

A: Laurie

Hi Paula, 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: Jose A Castellnos Lopez

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 interesd in the same stuff.

A: Laurie

Hi Jose, Thanks for your interesting question! 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: Jessie

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?

A: Laurie

Hi Jessie, Thanks for your question! 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: Melissa

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?

A: Laurie

Hi Melissa, Thanks for your question! 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.