Monday, June 06, 2005


Little Elmo

The NYT has a rather amusing article about a researcher training monkeys to use money. Aside from the obvious joke here, why can't they train our monkey in the WH to understand how money works, this research is interesting but only goes part way.
But in a clean and spacious laboratory at Yale-New Haven Hospital, seven capuchin monkeys have been taught to use money, and a comparison of capuchin behavior and human behavior will either surprise you very much or not at all, depending on your view of humans.
OK. I know monkeys really well. I once had a monkey fall in love with me (no, we were not on a date!). His name was "little Elmo" and I was his only love. One thing about monkeys.

They hate clean, orderly places. They are like their nearest relatives: humans. Like children, they love to run around smearing stuff on surfaces, climbing the furniture, pulling down things from shelves, tossing socks aside on the floor (they nevergrow out of that!) and in general, making things a mess. My first encounter with little Elmo was him flying through the air, landing on the dinner table and grabbing two fist fulls of spaghetti and flinging them around, hitting me in the face. Love at first strike!

Anyway, back to the guy in the white lab coat and his monkeys, to his mind.
When most people think of economics, they probably conjure images of inflation charts or currency rates rather than monkeys and marshmallows. But economics is increasingly being recognized as a science whose statistical tools can be put to work on nearly any aspect of modern life. That's because economics is in essence the study of incentives, and how people -- perhaps even monkeys -- respond to those incentives. A quick scan of the current literature reveals that top economists are studying subjects like prostitution, rock 'n' roll, baseball cards and media bias.
This is actually wrong! Famously, there have been studies of monkeys and stock analysis. In Britain, they had a monkey choose stocks randomly while top brokers chose carefully and at the end of the year, tallied up who made the best selections.

The monkey won.
The tamarins were fairly cooperative but still showed a healthy amount of self-interest: over repeated encounters with fellow monkeys, the typical tamarin pulled the lever about 40 percent of the time. Then Hauser and Chen heightened the drama. They conditioned one tamarin to always pull the lever (thus creating an altruistic stooge) and another to never pull the lever (thus creating a selfish jerk). The stooge and the jerk were then sent to play the game with the other tamarins. The stooge blithely pulled her lever over and over, never failing to dump a marshmallow into the other monkey's cage. Initially, the other monkeys responded in kind, pulling their own levers 50 percent of the time. But once they figured out that their partner was a pushover (like a parent who buys her kid a toy on every outing whether the kid is a saint or a devil), their rate of reciprocation dropped to 30 percent -- lower than the original average rate. The selfish jerk, meanwhile, was punished even worse. Once her reputation was established, whenever she was led into the experimenting chamber, the other tamarins ''would just go nuts,'' Chen recalls. ''They'd throw their feces at the wall, walk into the corner and sit on their hands, kind of sulk.''
Actually, this all sounds drearily domestic. Indeed, Dr. Freud often pointed out the close connection between feces and money.
Chen next introduced a pair of gambling games and set out to determine which one the monkeys preferred. In the first game, the capuchin was given one grape and, dependent on a coin flip, either retained the original grape or won a bonus grape. In the second game, the capuchin started out owning the bonus grape and, once again dependent on a coin flip, either kept the two grapes or lost one. These two games are in fact the same gamble, with identical odds, but one is framed as a potential win and the other as a potential loss.

How did the capuchins react? They far preferred to take a gamble on the potential gain than the potential loss. This is not what an economics textbook would predict. The laws of economics state that these two gambles, because they represent such small stakes, should be treated equally.
This is wrong. Everyone knows, especially con artists, that people can't resist a potential freebie but getting them to cough up first is tricky which is why they give instant rewards of a low level type to encourage gambling. You are allowed to win occassionally until you are hooked then they ravage you for everything.

Look at Bennett! He not only became a gambling addict, he did it naked in a Freudian flourish.
The data generated by the capuchin monkeys, Chen says, ''make them statistically indistinguishable from most stock-market investors.''
Then there is the stealing. Santos has observed that the monkeys never deliberately save any money, but they do sometimes purloin a token or two during an experiment. All seven monkeys live in a communal main chamber of about 750 cubic feet. For experiments, one capuchin at a time is let into a smaller testing chamber next door. Once, a capuchin in the testing chamber picked up an entire tray of tokens, flung them into the main chamber and then scurried in after them -- a combination jailbreak and bank heist -- which led to a chaotic scene in which the human researchers had to rush into the main chamber and offer food bribes for the tokens, a reinforcement that in effect encouraged more stealing.

Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys' true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)
The monkeys don't save money! I am surprized that the experiment didn't include credit cards! Anyone who doubts monkeys are our ancestors can use this fact as proof we, at least many Americans, are not far removed from monkeys. And most people don't understand how money works to that goes double. Trading stuff for sex: this is old stuff. Female birds do this. They won't mate with a male unless he "pays" them by building a nest and bringing food to them and gesturing the feeding motions to prove he is a good provider and will feed the babies when they hatch.

Better than the spider world where the female eats the male as payment for sex.

The other matter here is why the monkeys used money for sex only once. Obviously, the prudes running this lab keep the monkeys in social isolation and only when they had a break out did they get to live life again instead of being puppets controlled by the human. More than food, monkeys love sex. Little Elmo would drop whatever he was eating if I did the chirp chirp sound of his species (I am good at imitating animal sounds) and I would pat my arm and he would squeal with joy and fly to my side to hug my arm which was what he humped. He also was eager to feed me which could be...unappetizing. I don't live in a jungle eating insects.

Anyway, that was my Tarzan who was an ape.