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The Concept of Money in Primates: Do Apes Understand the Concept of Money?

Written by Avjin Aktop


Many studies conducted in recent years show that there is a perception of money in non-human primates and that this perception can develop under the right conditions. For example, capuchin monkeys can learn to buy their favorite foods using tokens and make decisions about purchasing either a single piece of high-quality food or a larger quantity of low-quality food with a certain amount of money [1]. Additionally, these primates have been observed engaging in behaviors such as prostitution in exchange for money [2]. In this article, we will take a closer look at the relationship between non-human primates and money.



Money: A Recent Invention!

If we imagine compressing the age of the Universe, approximately 13.8 billion years, into a one-year calendar, we would find ourselves using money at around 44 seconds past 23:59 on December 31. Despite its relatively recent emergence, the importance of money in today's society cannot be underestimated. This cosmic calendar corresponds to the last second of December 19th. When the great novelist Tolstoy, who lived in the same era as the development of money, was asked, "What does a person live with?" money stands out as the most general answer. Money plays a facilitating role in meeting our needs, ranging from the most basic physiological requirements to the highest level of self-realization in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which was formulated almost contemporaneously with Tolstoy's time. In fact, in modern life, it can become nearly impossible to meet these needs without money.


Moreover, the dynamics surrounding money are so powerful that they can even influence the way wars are fought. Due to their social and economically destructive effects, which can reach irreparable levels, imposing trade embargoes on nations has become a more effective weapon compared to traditional warfare. A recent example of this can be seen in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where the West responded by imposing restrictions on the trade of Russian oil [3].



Man Is Not the Only Moneyed Animal!

There are various forms of money usage today, and numerous studies have demonstrated that complex money-related decisions are associated with cognitive performance and intelligence. Therefore, it is easy to fall into the misconception that rationality in money-related decision-making, which has only existed for a few seconds on the cosmic calendar, is unique to humans and should remain so [4]. However, studies have shown that non-human animal species also possess a perception of the concept of money. In 2005, Yale professors Keith Chen, Lakshminarayanan, and Santos taught capuchin monkeys to use money, revealing yet another shared trait between us and our evolutionary cousins who originated from common ancestors on the final day of this cosmic calendar: our decision-making concerning money.


"Primates," derived from the Latin word "primer," meaning "precursor" or "primary," encompasses approximately 200 species including gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, gibbons, and humans. The existence of this taxon dates back to 80-55 million years ago [5, 6]. They are characterized by the ability to actively use their brains and bipedalism (walking on two legs) [7]. They are also considered the most intelligent living group of mammals. Tailless and tailed monkeys are species that humans diverged from approximately 23-5 million years ago, sharing a common ancestor [8]. Primates are evolutionarily the closest relatives of humans. Humans share approximately 96% of their DNA even with the most distant primate relatives, and nearly 99% with their closest relatives, chimpanzees, and bonobos [9].


The way primates and humans behave also has its share of this gene commonality; the behavior of these species is very similar to each other. Since money decisions reflect unconscious aspects of our behavior (without realizing it, we tend to be the best under the circumstances due to our survival motives), the decisions that primates make about commodities such as money have recently become a matter of curiosity.


There have been many different studies in the past about people making systematic mistakes in decision-making processes, and even a new sub-branch of economics has emerged in the last 50 years under the leadership of Nobel prize-winning economists Kahneman and Tversky: behavioral economics [10].


Scientists who wanted to study whether the systematic errors of this branch were unique to humans only, taught capuchin monkeys how to use money in simple transactions for a period of 6-7 months in 2005. Each of the 6 monkeys was given 12 coins to be used for fruits of different prices. Scientists who saw that monkeys created their budgets in such a way as to optimize their earnings found price increases and decrease in some products similar to real life, and monkeys acted in parallel with these theories, just as economic theories predicted human reactions.


Similarly, although no monkey protected the tokens given to him, he attempted to steal and ask for more while the tokens were being distributed. When they were taught how to gamble, it was noticed that these monkeys repeated the mistakes made by human gamblers.


Perhaps the most interesting thing, understanding the concept of money occurred when the monkeys realized that they could also shop for goods and services: In the experiment, it was observed that a monkey was shopping with tokens for sex. This was the first evidence of prostitution in animals.



Money-Based Inequalities Make Primates Angry!

This research first started with the system of placing two Capuchin monkeys in different cages and giving food to the monkey in the other cage with the help of one arm. If these two monkeys were not cooperating, they would go hungry, so both monkeys pulled the lever by an average of 40% (at most they occasionally acted selfishly).


As a next step, one monkey was taught to always pull the lever no matter what, and the other was taught to never pull it. These conditioned monkeys interacted with other monkeys. At first, the monkeys opposite the monkey who was always pulling the lever responded by pulling the lever 50%; but soon, when they realized that the conditional monkey would always pull the lever, if not reciprocally, their response rate dropped to 30%. The monkey, who never pulled the lever, had a bad reaction: the monkey opposite reacted by throwing their feces against the wall and sulking [11].


Another experiment published in the journal Nature in 2003 showed that monkeys understand the concept of inequality and regulate their behavior accordingly. Researchers de Waal and Sarah Bosnan initially taught the monkeys to exchange pebbles for cucumber slices. Although there was no problem when cucumber slices were given to each monkey, it was observed that the monkeys that received cucumber slices became angry when grapes, which were considered more valuable than these slices, were given only to certain monkeys, and they threw the slices out of their cages. This experiment revealed that monkeys, just like humans, are more interested in the return of their exchange relative to others than in their wage levels and living standards [11].



Conclusion

When making money-related decisions today, we are experiencing Decidence between many options, from large investments to grocery shopping. As a concept, we have been building and destroying systems since the first civilization was founded in Mesopotamia in the last 16 seconds in the history of the universe to properly manage the money that is so influenced by our instincts.


Systems related to money management continue to change and transform, but our instincts are still based on primates that we separated from the common ancestor millions of years ago. For this reason, the concept of money in primates may have an important quality for making sense of today's market transactions.



References:

  1. Sanderson, K. Monkeys understand money. Nature (2008). Retrieved November 9, 2022, from: https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2008.882

  2. Puiu, T. (2020, June 8). How scientists taught monkeys the concept of money. Not long after, the first prostitute monkey appeared. ZME Science. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from: https://www.zmescience.com/research/how-scientists-tught-monkeys-the-concept-of-money-not-long-after-the-first-prostitute-monkey-appeared/

  3. Hartmans, A. (2022, March 4). The US and its Allies are trying to cripple Russia's economy with sanctions that target everything from international travel to oligarchs' yachts — here's how they work. Business Insider. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.businessinsider.com/what-are-sanctions-russia-ukraine-invasion-us-eu-uk-nato-2022-3

  4. Lausch, S. (2018, June 12). Understanding complex buying behavior:. Dominion Dealer Solutions. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.drivedominion.com/blog/understanding-complex-buying-behavior/

  5. Oxford University Press. Primate Noun. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/primate

  6. McNulty, K. (n.d.). Paleontology and primate evolution | Learn science at Scitable. Nature. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/paleontology-and-primate-evolution-135304123/

  7. Kelly, J. (n.d.). What are the major characteristics of primates? Pets on Mom.com. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://animals.mom.com/major-characteristics-primates-3721.html

  8. Choi, C. Q. (2017, August 10). Fossil reveals what last common ancestor of humans and apes looked like. Scientific American. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fossil-reveals-what-last-common-ancestor-of-humans-and-apes-looked-liked/

  9. Cloudflare CAPTCHA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/human-origins/understanding-our-past/living-primates

  10. Heukelom, F. (2007, January). Kahneman and Tversky and the origin of behavioral economics. Search eLibrary. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=956887

  11. Fisher, D. (2006, February 14). Primate Economics. Forbes. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from: https://www.forbes.com/2006/02/11/monkey-economics-money_cz_df_money06_0214monkeys.html?sh=382cf3e73a63

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