Battlepanda: Monkey Business


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Monkey Business

(Via Elaine Supkis)

Holy Shit! They taught capuchin monkeys to understand the value of tokens that can be exchanged for various foods. That is, monkey money. The monkeys seem to understand not simply that the metal disks used as token can be exchanged for food, but how to do this in utility maximizing ways. That is, if the price of jello cubes fell, the monkeys would buy more of it. The diabolical behavioral economist even introduced two gambling games, one in which a monkey is given a grape, and then given a bonus grape (or not) depending on a coin flip, and another in which a monkey is given two grapes and then has one taken away (or not) depending on a coin flip. Like humans, monkeys prefer to play the first game. And like most Americans, the monkeys seem incapable of saving their tokens for delayed gratification. But they have been known to steal money, and the researcher thinks he might have saw an instance of the oldest profession taking place out of the corner of his eyes. Let's is introduced and hot on it's heels comes crime and prostitution. Sounds about right.

I hope we hear more from Keith Chen and his experiments. Why should the psychologists get a monopoly on messing with monkey minds? Here's a description of another of his experiments, this time on tamarin monkeys and altruism:
Two monkeys faced each other in adjoining cages, each equipped with a lever that would release a marshmallow into the other monkey's cage. The only way for one monkey to get a marshmallow was for the other monkey to pull its lever. So pulling the lever was to some degree an act of altruism, or at least of strategic cooperation.

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.''

Now, I'm sure Chen probably thought of this already. But can we pleeeease have the prisoner's dilemma enacted with different species of monkies? That would just make me, personally, so happy.