Do people make bad decisions because of poor information, lack of understanding, unwillingness or over-willingness to take a risk, or is it something even more primitive that lurks in our evolutionary background? Santos shows that her research subjects make similar errors to us even though they are not human. Primates seem to understand economics in many of the same ways people do.

Why you should listen:

Laurie Santos and her research team have been looking at behaviors that were once the province mainly of novelists: jealousy, frustration, judgment of others’ intentions, poor economic choices. In one experiment, Santos and her team taught monkeys to use a form of money, tradable for food. When certain foods became cheaper, monkeys would, like humans, overbuy. As we humans search for clues to our own irrational behaviors, Santos’ research suggests that the source of our genius for bad decisions might be our monkey brains.

Who is she:

Laurie Santos runs the Comparative Cognition Laboratory (CapLab) at Yale, where she and collaborators across departments (from psychology to primatology to neurobiology) explore the evolutionary origins of the human mind by studying lemurs, capuchin monkeys and other primates. The twist: Santos looks not only for positive humanlike traits, like tool-using and altruism, but irrational ones, like biased decision making.


  1. Santos reminds us that we are smart – the Sapiens part – but that we as a species can make lots    of dumb decisions. To what does she attribute this?
  1. Santos says that there are circumstances in which we have made repeat errors, and that we repeat those errors in similar situations, as though we have learned nothing. To what does she ascribe this?
  1. As a primate researcher, Santos studies creatures that have decision making capability, but not technology or language. Why is this useful in the study of human decision making?
  1. What was the decision the researchers made about what to teach monkeys?
  1. The human salesmen offered the monkey food for tokens. What discrimination did the monkeys quickly learn?
  1. Santos shows that we have two “built in” biases that hold true for almost everyone, and for every monkey. What are these?

A monkey economy as irrational as ours with Laurie Santos


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