Scientist Monkeys Around With The Economy

A primate ethologist asked what would happen when a low-ranking monkey is trained to do things high-ranking monkeys can't do? The answer in human economic terms: The new skills translated into a much bigger income.

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And now we turn from baseball to monkey business. Most groundbreaking experiments in economics are performed by economists, as you would expect. But a scientist called a primate ethologist has added to the sum total of economic knowledge, at least as it applies to monkeys - and maybe to us. Alex Blumberg of our Planet Money team has the story.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You're on the low end of the social order. You toil and toil, yet make hardly any money for your efforts. Is there a way for you to improve your lot, bump up your earning potential, if you're monkey?

Dr. RONALD NOE (Primate Ethologist, University of Strasbourg): We were trying to answer questions about whether monkeys are able to behave in an economic way.

BLUMBERG: This is Dr. Ronald Noe, a primate ethologist at the University of Strasbourg. His question specifically was, what would happen if you trained a low-ranking vervet monkey to do things that other vervet monkeys, even high-ranking monkeys, couldn't do?>

Now, a vervet monkey society is pretty hierarchical: high-ranking monkeys get groomed a lot, but hardly ever have to groom other monkeys. Low-ranking monkeys groom others, but never get groomed themselves. Dr. Noe's team trained a low-ranker to open a container with bits of apples in it, a skill that no other monkey had. Would it be worth anything, he wondered, in monkey money -otherwise known as grooming.

Dr. NOE: It has some aspects of money. The higher-rankers can give other services that low-rankers can't give, such as support in a fight or a tolerance around a food site or something like that. And they get rewarded for that by grooming of them.

BLUMBERG: I see, OK. Tolerance around the food site, in other words, they let - they can…

Dr. NOE: They can decide whether or not the low-ranker is allowed to feed next to them or not. If they don't like it, they hit them over the head. If they like it, they…

BLUMBERG: So it's a protection racket, in a certain way.

Dr. NOE: We see it in a slightly more positive way. They are nice to each other and groom each other. But of course, they also hit each other over the head once in a while, that's for sure.

BLUMBERG: Sure enough, when they trained a low-ranking monkey to open the container, just as any technical college advertisement will tell you, the new skills translated into a higher income. Roughly an hour after she'd open the container for everyone, she was getting groomed a lot more, as much as a high-ranking monkey, and she no longer had to do hardly any grooming herself. But that was not the most spectacular finding.

Dr. NOE: So what then did, is we got a second low-ranking female, trained her to open a second container with apples in it, and then we saw that the value of the first provider dropped, more or less, to the half of what she had before. So now we had a competition between two animals. Both of them could provide this good, these apples, and so the value of the first one dropped down again. And of the second one who was very low at the beginning of the experiment, she went up. And they ended up both in the middle, so to speak.

BLUMBERG: So when there was a monkey monopoly on the skill, the monkeys paid one price. But when it became a duopoly, the price fell to an equilibrium point, about half of what it had been. And this all happened despite the fact that we're talking about monkeys here. Monkeys can't do math.

Dr. NOE: Animals that cannot form binding contracts, animals that cannot talk about what they want to do or cannot offer verbally or anything - they nevertheless are quite accurate in adapting their behavior to what the market gives them.

BLUMBERG: Dr. Noe says that monkeys arrive at these economic outcomes not through sitting down and negotiation, but through feeling and emotion. Monkeys develop positive associations toward a container-opening member of the society, and they just want to groom her. But once another monkey can open the container, the skill isn't as unique, the positive feelings diminish, and grooming goes down. It's the law of supply and demand played out along the neurohormonal pathways that deal with emotion in the monkey brain.

Dr. Noe wonders how much of human economics operates along similar lines. As he puts it, even on the stock market, people might play more with their bellies than with their brains.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

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