Who is more rational – humans or monkeys?

A super-informative  article from WSJ. It tells you of this lab in Yale called Comparative Cognition Laboratory.

Some scientists find inspiration in the lab. Others trek into the field. Laurie Santos likes the local coffee house.The 36-year-old runs Yale University’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory, which examines the origins of the human mind by studying primate cognition. Many of her experiments try to determine the roots of human economic behavior.

The primate lab is home to 10 “shockingly smart” brown Capuchin monkeys trained to trade tokens for food. It was a short leap for Dr. Santos and her team to decide to study how monkeys make decisions about money. In setting up a monkey market economy, they knew they had to gather the kind of data that would “convince an economist,'” said Dr. Santos, so she enlisted the help of Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at Yale School of Management. They usually met at the coffee shop to swap ideas. Once the effort got under way, students in the lab started dropping in, too. They all liked the central location, informal setting and “having an excuse to get coffee,” she said. In deference to her students’ late-night habits, most meetings were held in the afternoon.

Superb. From the website of Comparative Cognition Laboratory:

The Comparative Cognition Laboratory explores the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of human and non-human primates.  Our experiments focus on a number of different primate species (in the field and in captivity) and incorporate methodologies from cognitive development and cognitive neuroscience.

Our research examines the following broad questions: what domains of knowledge are unique to the human mind? Given that human infants and non-human primates both lack language, what similarities and differences do we see in the expression of non-linguistic domains of knowledge?

 Our current work explores what primates understand about physical objects and their motions, how primates spontaneously reason about different kinds of things (foods, artifacts, and animals), and whether or not non-human primates possess precursors to a theory of mind.

Some intriguing papers from the lab here

The article further talks about how humans are similar from monkeys:

Once the researchers have an idea for a study, they usually sketch out the details of how it would work in a long brainstorming session. In one experiment, they gave each monkey a wallet filled with 12 flat aluminum tokens, monkey money that the animals could trade for food. Right away, the scientists saw the similarities to human behavior. When researchers slashed the price on certain foods, the monkeys sought out the best deal. They also typically spent all their cash at once and didn’t bother to save.

In one experiment, a researcher showed a monkey two pieces of apple but handed over one in exchange for a token. A second researcher showed one piece of apple and gave the slice to the monkey for the token. The monkeys strongly preferred to trade with the second researcher. They did not like being offered two apple pieces and then only getting one.

Though, monkeys are not as expensive savvy:

The experiments that have been done so far show that many of our economic behaviors are deeply rooted. Still, there appears to be a place where the two species part ways.

Researchers wondered whether monkeys, like humans, desire an expensive item more. For the same number of tokens, the monkeys could choose whether they got a tiny square of blue Jell-O or a big chunk of red Jell-O. Later, the monkeys were allowed to choose which kind they wanted. If the monkeys were like humans, they would have gone for the blue Jell-O, the more “expensive” choice. But the monkeys gorged happily on both.

Finally, may be monkeys are more rational:

The researchers are still gathering and analyzing the data. One possibility: Human taste preferences are based on many factors, whereas the monkeys’ are not. Some might argue that human economic behavior is more advanced since it includes “culture and meta-awareness” in decision-making, said Dr. Santos. There’s another, less flattering possibility too. “The monkeys,” she said, “are more rational.”

Amazing to note of such kind of research


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