by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 9, 2010    •    370 Views

Watching capuchin monkeys, we can learn about the financial crisis.

In a July TED talk, Yale’s Laurie Santos describes the marketplace she created for the monkeys she was observing. Santos’s goal was to determine whether the mistakes we repeat are because of “us” or our environment. If the moneys with whom we share a common ancestor behave like “us”, then we both might be “hardwired” to behave in a certain way.

In the Santos experiment, monkeys were given tokens that they could exchange for grapes. Seeing them quickly grasp the concept, the researchers introduced new variables to see, for example, whether the monkeys displayed a tendency to save. (They did not.) Faced with a risk taking situation that involved getting fewer grapes, the monkeys had to decide whether to accept a definite loss or to gamble on the size of the loss or gain. The monkeys gambled rather than selecting the safer alternative.

Because of consistent behavioral results, Santos concluded that monkeys have a biological tendency to behave a certain way. And, because that behavior was reminiscent of human behavior, she asked if humans have a predisposed response when faced with financial risk related decisions.

The Economic Lesson

Through its Research Center for Behavioral Economics, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has sought insight about human behavior to improve policy decisions. At a 2007 conference, they considered papers on the following topics:1) the emotional response to changes in wages and prices 2) the impact of financial illiteracy or psychological biases on financial decisions 3) the impact of consumers being “largely unaware of how much things cost”” 4) the effect of financial literacy on saving behavior 5) the reasons wages are rarely cut.

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