Little attention has been paid to whether systematic economic biases such as risk-aversion are learned behaviors -- and thus easily ameliorated through market incentives -- or biologically based, arising in novel situations and in spite of experience. In a groundbreaking new study from the Journal of Political Economy, Yale researchers extend this question across species, exploring how a colony of capuchin monkeys responds to economic decisions. They found that monkeys doing business -- including trading and gambling -- behave in ways that closely mirror our own behavioral inclinations.
"Traditionally, economists have remained agnostic as to the origins of human preferences," write M. Keith Chen, Venkat Lakshminarayanan, and Laurie R. Santos. "[But] if much of the fundamental structure of our preferences were so deep rooted as to extend to closely-related species, this would bolster the assumption of preference stability."
As part of the study, the researchers presented capuchin monkeys with two payoff-identical gambles: one in which a good outcome was framed as a bonus, and the other in which bad outcomes were emphasized as losses. Like humans, the monkeys displayed a strong preference for the first option, and like humans, the monkeys seemed to weigh the losses more heavily than comparable gains.
"Our results suggest that loss-averse behavior is a very general feature of economic choice," explain the authors. "Given our capuchins' inexperience with trade and gambles, these results suggest that loss-aversion extends beyond humans, and may be innate rather than learned."