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Caveman economics

Experiments with monkeys indicate we've been making the same money mistakes for millions of years.

By Karen Datko Aug 26, 2010 1:05PM

This guest post comes from Pop at Pop Economics.


How hard is it to learn to be a good investor? I've written a lot about the behavioral quirks that cause us to make major mistakes when we put our money in stocks and bonds, even though we know that we'd do a lot better to make different decisions. Losses hurt more than gains feel good. Walking inside your boss's office for a review actually triggers an adrenal response -- you're ready to sock your boss in the face or fly out the door as he tells you how well you're filling out Excel spreadsheets.

Of course, none of these emotional and hormonal responses actually help you do anything. You know that having cold, sweaty hands isn't going to help you explain your position to your boss effectively, in the same way you know that getting a free ice cream cone should make you just as happy as dropping one on the floor makes you sad. So why do we do it?


Monkeys fear losses too

One of the unique traits of the human species is our use of money. If you're a rancher, you don't have to drive 100 cattle to your Realtor's office to buy a house. We've created a fungible, easily divisible medium of exchange that makes it much more convenient.


That old invention can make it hard to run some types of economic and scientific tests to understand why we treat money the way we do. But what if you could teach a monkey to value and use money? Then you could run all sorts of experiments to see how deep our ridiculously unprofitable predilections run.


M. Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the Yale School of Management, has done just this. His community of capuchin monkeys has learned to value coins. They can exchange coins for orange peels or apple slices. Chen can change the prices of the prizes every so often to see how the monkeys react.


In 2006, Chen ran experiments to see just how mad a monkey gets when prices go up versus how happy he gets when they drop. To do this, he faced the monkeys with two trainers, with different colored clothing. The first trainer would show a monkey two apple slices, but when the monkey traded in his token, the trainer would either pay the monkey the promised two slices or just one -- averaging out to 1.5 slices per payment.


The second trainer would show a monkey one slice. But when the monkey paid a token, that trainer would either give the monkey the one, promised slice or would unexpectedly deliver two slices -- again averaging out to 1.5 slices.


Rationally, the choice between the two trainers should have been a wash. But the monkeys preferred the trainer who gave them unexpected gains two-and-a-half times more than the one that gave them unexpected losses.


So, think you can get over loss aversion? Our ancestors might have felt this way for 40 million years. Good luck!


Monkeys treat risk the same way we do

Another fun monkey experiment: The capuchins were presented with two sets of trainers. In the first set, both trainers promised the monkeys one piece of food (by showing it to them).


But in fact, the first trainer always paid out two pieces, and the second trainer would pay out one piece half the time and three pieces half the time. Again, statistically, the trainers were a wash, but the monkeys preferred the one with the guaranteed, two-piece payment more than the risky guy.


In the second set, monkeys were always promised three pieces of food. But the first trainer would consistently pay out two pieces and the second trainer either paid out one piece or three pieces. In other words, the monkeys could take a guaranteed, one-piece loss or roll the dice (and risk losing two pieces). This time, the monkeys preferred to take the risk.


What do those experiments show? That when we have a choice between guaranteed gains or taking a risk for an even larger gain, we'd prefer the bird in the hand. But when we might take a guaranteed loss or can take a risk to possibly lose nothing, we're willing to take the risk.


Monkeys overvalue what they own

Why is it so hard to get a trade going in Monopoly? I noticed this especially when I was younger. After the board was bought up, the players would start to offer trades. Thing is, the offers would always be ridiculously lopsided. "I'll trade you Boardwalk for North Carolina, Atlantic, Ventnor and St. Charles." And the response: "No way. I'll give you Atlantic and $100 for Boardwalk." And so on.


Economists calls this the "endowment effect." We value things more if we own them. In one famous experiment, humans were asked to buy and sell coffee mugs. In each and every case, they wanted more for the mug than they, themselves, would be willing to pay for it.


Sadly, it doesn't look like evolution has gotten us over this one either. Chen gave one group of his monkeys one kind of food and the other group another kind.


The monkeys preferred each type of food equally. So you would expect the monkeys to end up trading about half of the food with each other. Instead, almost no trades were conducted at all. "Yeah, I like apple slices as much as I like orange peels. But this is my orange peel."


So next time you find yourself thinking you can overcome the behavioral biases that cause us to handle money so irrationally, think back to the monkeys. We've been fighting this for 40 million years. Think you're going to be the one to overcome it?


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