Sunday, June 05, 2005

Teaching monkeys to follow the money 

Alert reader MJS extends Deep Throat's classic injunction:

Following [the] money is how one truly understands most political stories. Forget sides, Left vs. Right, blah, blah, blah: follow the money. Where is the money going? Where did it come from? How is it moved? Who benefits?
(via MJS, back)

Turns out scientists have trained monkeys to follow the money. From the NY Times new column, Freakonmics (and read the whole thing, it's fascinating:

In a clean and spacious laboratory at Yale-New Haven Hospital, seven capuchin monkeys have been taught to use money [by Keith Chen, a behavioral economist]

The first set of experiments concerned 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)...

that would be a Beltway Dem, or the kind of (so-called) liberal who doesn't care about outcomes (see Daily Howler)

and another to never pull the lever (thus creating a selfish jerk).

That would be the typical Republican.

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.

And that's how the Republicans have behaved, as soon as they figured out that Dems will just take it.

But there's hope for change:

The selfish jerk, meanwhile, was punished even worse. Once her reputation was established...

which the reality based community (unlike the SCLM) is working very hard at right now

.... 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.''

which, again, is what we're doing; nailing, as it were, the 99 feces to the White House door.

But now we get to the money part:

When he and Santos, his psychologist collaborator, began to teach the Yale capuchins to use money, he had no pressing research theme. The essential idea was to give a monkey a dollar and see what it did with it. The currency Chen settled on was a silver disc, one inch in diameter, with a hole in the middle -- ''kind of like Chinese money,'' he says. It took several months of rudimentary repetition to teach the monkeys that these tokens were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day. Having gained that understanding, a capuchin would then be presented with 12 tokens on a tray and have to decide how many to surrender for, say, Jell-O cubes versus grapes. This first step allowed each capuchin to reveal its preferences and to grasp the concept of budgeting.

Then Chen introduced price shocks and wealth shocks. If, for instance, the price of Jell-O fell (two cubes instead of one per token), would the capuchin buy more Jell-O and fewer grapes? The capuchins responded rationally to tests like this -- that is, they responded the way most readers of The Times would respond. In economist-speak, the capuchins adhered to the rules of utility maximization and price theory: when the price of something falls, people tend to buy more of it.

Since, so far, the monkey's don't save, there's no monkey wealth. But suppose Chen trains the monkeys to make money (perhaps, as MJS suggests, in the dark...).

And suppose some of the monkeys become rich, relative to the other monkeys. My question is:

Will the rich monkeys be more Godly than the poor ones?

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