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Keith Chen's Monkey Research Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, was certain that humankind's knack for monetary exchange belonged to humankind alone."Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog," he wrote.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.
The capuchins responded rationally to tests like this -- that is, they responded the way most readers of The Times would respond.
"You can feed them marshmallows all day, they'll throw up and then come back for more."When most people think of economics, they probably conjure images of inflation charts or currency rates rather than monkeys and marshmallows.
But economics is increasingly being recognized as a science whose statistical tools can be put to work on nearly any aspect of modern life.
He may be the only economist conducting monkey experiments, which puts him at slight odds with his psychologist collaborators (who are more interested in behavior itself than in the incentives that produce the behavior) as well as with certain economist colleagues.
"I love interest rates, and I'm willing to talk about their kind of stuff all the time," he says, speaking of his fellow economists.