What Monkeynomics Can Tell Us About Us

A couple of years ago, the magazine profiled Yale psychologist and primate researcher Laurie Santos and her work studying a colony of rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico (read "Thinking Like a Monkey").

She has built a growing and impressive list of publications in cognitive neuroscience (mostly having to do with how primates understand physical objects and relations) and evolutionary psychology, the field that grew out of sociobiology. "If you see something in a primate," Santos reasons, "you can use it as a window into the evolutionary past of human beings."

More recently, Santos gave a TEDTalk (above) on another aspect of her research in which she taught brown capuchin monkeys to use money. No, not so they could run her errands at the local shop, but so that she could learn about how we humans got ourselves into our latest financial mess.

See, if monkeys make the same financial mistakes we do, if they have the same biases, then it might prove a bit harder to prevent situations like the latest recession. Santos explains in the video:

What we've learned is that these biases might be a deeper part of us than that. In fact, they might be due to the very nature of our evolutionary history. You know, maybe it's not just humans at the right side of this chain that's duncey. Maybe it's sort of duncey all the way back. And this, if we believe the capuchin monkey results, means that these duncey strategies might be 35 million years old.

It's rather sad to think that we might be doomed to repeat the same financial decisions over and over because they are so ingrained into our human makeup that even our distant monkey cousins make the same bad decisions. But Santos also points out that if we know we do these things---that we have these biases and can't just easily put them aside---then we can use technology and other work-arounds to overcome our limitations.

If we can create a monkey marketplace, surely we can figure out how to get our own to work better.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.