Much Ado about Monkey Poo

December 31, 2007

Somehow I got directed to smithsonianmag.com’s article on Yale Psychology professor Laurie Santos’s research testing whether monkey’s have a “theory of mind,” including an understanding of “false belief” (e.g. realizing that if person A puts grapes in box 1 and leaves the room, then returns after person B has moved the grapes to box 2, that person A will assume that the grapes are still in box 1 — apparently children under 4 have trouble with distinguishing what they believe to be true and what others with different information should believe to be true). It occurred to me that this might be a good example of the sort of finding about human cognition derived from scientific study that hermeneutic and intentionalist approaches to the human sciences ought to — somehow — synthesize with, or at least make sure that they are consistent with.

And then I ran into this little gem of a story, which made me forget all about my actual research interests:

“She [Santos] has somewhat more affection for the 11 capuchin monkeys in her lab at Yale, who are named after characters in James Bond movies (Goldfinger, Jaws, Holly Goodhead). Her work with them involves experiments on “social decision-making.” She equips them with tokens they can trade for food and studies the development of their rudimentary economy. Like human beings, they are loss-averse: if the going price is two grapes for a token, they prefer to trade with an experimenter who shows them one grape and then adds one, compared with one who shows three and takes one away. They are also sneaky. After swapping for an apple, she says, they will sometimes take a bite of it, then present the untouched side to the researcher and try to sell it back. And they have an entrepreneurial bent. At times they would offer their feces in exchange for a token, behavior that baffled the researchers until a student pointed out that every morning someone comes into the cage and scoops out the droppings—which may have given them the idea that people value them.”