This is one of my favorites – I wanted to reshare!
See the full NYTimes Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt article here.
What I learned: Keith Chen, an economist at Yale, conducted a study in 2005 to test whether monetary exchanges was a practice that can only exist in a humans society. 7 capuchin monkeys were placed into a room, given 12 coins per day, and taught how to exchange the coins for grapes, apples, and Jello. It took several months, but the monkeys eventually learned to buy and budget to their preferences. The researches then introduced price shocks and wealth shocks; for example, the price of apples rose from 2 coins per grape to 5 coins per grape. Surprisingly, the monkeys reacted just as people would, stocking up when there were sales and avoiding pricey items when there was a price inflation.
One day, a capuchin escaped and proceeded to steal the bag of coins. As the researchers cornered him in, he had no choice but to fling the bag of coins into the room of monkeys. The monkeys dived for the coins; some got a pile of coins while others got none. This was the first time that the number of coins per monkey was not even. As the researchers came to the room with trays of food, all but two of the monkeys in the room rushed to exchange their coins for food. A single male monkey with a pile of coins was eyeing a female monkey that had no coins, who happened to be eyeing the pile of food with eagerness and sadness. Skipping out on details, what proceeded next was an instance of monkey prostitution – the male monkey offered his coins to the female in exchange for sex, to which she agreed and used the coins to buy food afterward.
Why this is significant:
1. Monetary exchanges are learned rather than a complex system that only humans can grasp.
2. Budgeting, saving when prices are high, stocking up when prices are low, and other utility maximization theories all applied to the monkeys. These economic reactions are instinctive when given the opportunity to partake in a monetary exchange system.
3. Prostitution is not necessarily a societal influence, but a basic instinct. The monkeys had no previous exposure to it, but decided to partake in it because they saw a need and a solution.
4. The complex monetary system, economic reactions, and prostitution demonstrated in this study were motivated by rather simple incentives (the food). In our parallel society, humans act in similar ways.