Researchers have certainly taken a look at just about every human craving and function, but it’s fascinating to see the insights they can garner by looking at activity in monkeys. As most people realize, monkeys are highly intelligent beings and the patterns that they create and the ways that they interact can say a great deal about human behavior and the ways that humans face certain situations. Many people have seen videos in which monkeys are able to think for themselves, devise plans and help out in situations where their assistance is needed. So, too, do they approach money, gambling and social interactions in ways that can be insightful for the look at human behavior. Here, we highlight a number of such studies that shed light on how monkeys see risk taking and gambling and how they interact with other creatures with their human-like qualities.
Monkeys Acting Like Humans
There are many examples that show how closely monkeys and apes can act to humans and how intelligent they really are. In one video seen on YouTube, tourists exploring the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali in Indonesia found a monkey that had adopted a kitten. He was treating the cats in exactly the same way as you would expect his to treat his baby, or as you would expect a mother to treat her young. In another video in the same park, monkeys watch a cat fight. When the fighting between the cats gets too intense, they actually break up the fight just as humans who care about others would do. In another video, a baby chick is drowning in the water and an orangutan figures out how to save the baby from the water and how to take care of it. All of these examples, and there are many many more like them, show how much monkeys can act like humans. There are so many videos that show monkeys caring for cats and worrying about other animals. They are shown in many situations to have empathy and to react and interact in a similar way that humans would under similar circumstances.
The Desire for Risk
In one study, conducted by Duke University Medical Center neurologist Michael Platt and Allison McCoy, male rhesus macaque monkeys were shown two lights. One of the lights was considered a safe light which would give the monkeys the exact same amount of juice each time that they chose that one. If they looked at the risky light instead, they would get a varying amount of juice each time with no pattern. Sometimes they would get a lot of juice and sometimes they would get only a little bit. Surprisingly, the monkeys were found to enjoy gambling, even if the average amount of juice that they received was less than if they had chosen the safe light. As Platt explained, “There was no rational reason why monkeys might prefer one of these options over the other because, according to the theory of expected value, they’re identical.”
The researchers then made sure that the payback for the risky light was consistently less than the safe one. Surprisingly, they still found that the monkeys went for the risky light. As Platt explained, “Basically these monkeys really liked to gamble.” Their findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience shed fascinating light on how monkeys approached the idea of gambling and what this might say for online casino playing and gambling in people. As Platt explained, when comparing the monkey behavior to pokies and other gaming, “It seemed very, very similar to the experience of people who are compulsive gamblers…it seemed as if these monkeys got a high out of getting a big reward that obliterated any memory of all the losses that they would experience following that big reward. They even wired electrodes into a part of the monkey’s brains that, in both humans and monkeys, is known to process information on rewards. They found that, as they increased the riskiness in the risky light, the neurons’ activity would go up. They hope that their work can shed light on pathological gambling, the obsessive compulsive disorders that some people have and even on depression.
In another study, researchers wanted to see if people believe in patterns in gambling, even when they don’t exist. Three researchers looked at this question including Benjamin Hayden, Tommy Blanchard and Andreas Wilke. They published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition. Their plan was that the monkeys would decide between right and left and then receive a reward if they picked the correct answer. There were three types of play that they had to participate in, two with clear patterns so that the correct answer would repeat and the third that was random. The researchers had to make sure that the activity was interesting enough for the animals to want to play. As Blanchard explained, “Luckily, monkeys love to gamble.”
Monkey Results: Everyone Loves Patterns
The three rhesus monkeys could easily find the sequence when there was one in the game. The real question, however, was to see what would happen with the random task. The choices that the monkeys made were very surprising. They continued to expect a streak even when there clearly wasn’t one, favoring one side over the other. This continued even when it was very clear that there was no pattern to be found. This is called the hot-hand bias and it continued with an average of 1244 trails for each condition. Blanchard explained what they saw, ‘They had lots and lots of opportunities to get over this bias, to learn and change, and yet they continued to show the same tendency.” There are many thoughts about why they tried to see patterns where there weren’t necessarily any. One idea is that in the distribution of food in the wild animals need to act this way. If they see beetles under a log, for instance, then they will assume that they can come back to this location and find food there again.
How the Hot-Hand Bias Relates to Humans
Co-author Benjamin Hayden said another idea. He said that, “We have this incredible drive to see patterns in the world, and we also have this incredible drive to learn. I think it’s very related to why we like music, and why we like to do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and things like that. If there’s a pattern there, we’re on top of it. And if there may or may not be a pattern there, that’s even more interesting.” This inborn desire to see patterns certainly relates to how humans play pokies and approach gambling. We often believe that there are patterns in our gaming when no such patterns may actually exist. Hayden explained that the hot-hand bias can help psychologists and psychiatrists to make treatment plans for gambling addiction and to provide insight for investors and financial planners. As Hayden explained, “If a belief in winning streaks is hardwired, then we may want to look for more rigorous retaining for individuals who cannot control their gambling. And investors should keep in mind that humans have an inherited bias to believe that if a stock goes up one day, it will continue to go up.”
Money, Monkeys and Greed
In another study, at the Yale New Haven Hospital, seven capuchin monkeys were used to see how they would interact with money. Keith Chen, a Yale economist, and Laurie Santos, a psychologist, wanted to see what would happen when monkeys were given money in many different situations. First, of course, they had to make the monkeys understand what money was. They creates silver discs that they introduced to the monkeys and they gave them the understanding that the discs were worth something. The monkeys eventually started to understand that they wanted these discs and that they could get them items like food. Next, each monkey was given 12 of the discs. The monkeys figured out that they could buy grapes and cucumbers with their coins. They were able to understand that when the grapes were on sale, it was worthwhile to buy these rather than the more expensive food.
Gambling with Monkeys and Money
Next, they turned their attention to gambling. The monkeys were given two situations that had the same outcome. Either they had one grape and, depending on the flip of a coin, would keep the grape or get another one; or they started out with the two grapes and would either end up keeping two or losing one. The question was if the monkeys would prefer gambling with the idea of winning more or losing more. The monkeys showed, as do humans, that they preferred the idea of winning rather than losing – even though the end results were the same. This is not, interesting enough, what economic textbooks say will happen. They say that people treat both types of gambling in the same way. When these studies have been done with people, they find that the people make the same irrational conclusions that the monkeys made. They like the idea of being given something more rather than the idea of losing something – even if they end up with the same amount. This is called loss aversion and it’s actually quite similar, as Chen explains, to the stock-market.
All of these studies looked at similar ideas. First of all, they had the premise that the actions that the monkeys take can be translated to actions that humans take. And we’ve seen in many studies, and in many YouTube videos, that this is true. Monkeys have many qualities that mirror those of humans and that are similar when put in these situations. The researchers all wanted to see how the monkeys would do in situations that don’t follow logical patterns. What would they do when there wasn’t a reward for doing a certain activity, but the monkeys assumed there was a pattern? What would they do when the outcome of a situation was the same but one looked like they were being rewarded and one looked like they were being punished? The results of all of these studies were fascinating, and can certainly help researchers to make some interesting observations about gambling, about the psychology of investments and the stock market and more.
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Certainly, these results can help researchers in many ways. All of the articles explained how the monkeys and their behavior could translate to human behavior. How do people react when they are watching a sporting event and gambling in it? What assumptions does the basketball player make about his ability to make the free throw, even if there aren’t necessarily guaranteed patterns. How do stock brokers approach their business and in what ways to other people buy into the premise that the stock brokers make? These results have far reaching consequences, many of which have financial consequences for people. And for these reasons, and many others, the results of the monkey and gambling studies are interesting and important. Of course,they help people to see how online casino gamblers approach their pokies games. But they also help psychologists and others to see what fallacies people often hold even when the evidence points them in an entirely different direction.
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