Monkeynomics: Can You Teach a Monkey to Spend Money?

Can you teach a monkey the basics of market economy?

In this article over at our pal mental_floss, Allen St. John wrote about an intriguing research by Laurie Santos and Keith Chen of Yale University to see if they can teach monkeys to spend money:

A video of one of these early experiments shows that when Felix, the group’s alpha male, entered, he received a “wallet” with 12 of those round aluminum tokens. Two student researchers, one wearing a pink T-shirt, the other blue, stood on either side of that 3-foot cubic enclosure, each holding a different tray of food. The premise at this stage was pretty basic: Felix could swap his tokens for food with either of the two researchers. He didn’t seem to care much about the students. But he did care profoundly about what the researchers would sell him in exchange for that little metal token.

Felix and the others were cautious, observant shoppers. As the video shows, Felix would head first to the researcher holding out pieces of orange, examining them carefully; before leaving, he stopped to smell them. He went to the other researcher and did exactly the same thing—looking, sniffing, shopping. He then headed back to the first researcher and handed over a token to complete the transaction. Oranges, please.

“When you watch it, it looks like they’re contemplating, thinking about what they’re going to buy,” says Santos. What separates these capuchins from the scores of animals who have been trained to perform complex behaviors in exchange for food is the option presented by that second researcher.

“The critical aspect of money is that it’s fungible. It represents a choice,” explains Chen. “A coin is fundamentally different than, say, pressing a lever.” Santos and Chen had not only achieved their preliminary goal, they had made history: The monkeys were using cash. The capuchins were now operating in a sphere where humans had been dwelling alone.


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They left off the point where once the monkeys understood the concept of money - one of the very first things they did was use money to pay for sex.
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