The Law Of Supply and Demand and Warm Fuzzies

This from NPR’s Planet Money podcast:  Economic theory applies to monkeys.

Ronald Noe, a professor of primate ethology at the University of Strasbourg, conducted a study in economics with vervet monkeys.

A duo of vervet monkeys applying economic theory.

A duo of vervet monkeys applying innate economic theory.

Vervet monkeys, he observed, have a strong hierarchical structure based upon a monkey’s ability to provide food for the troop.  The troop repays the monkey for its ability to gather food with grooming.  The dominant monkey gets the most grooming, and pretty much doesn’t groom anyone else.  The monkey least able to provide food gets the least grooming, and spends much of its time grooming others.  Grooming is the monkey’s “currency.”

Professor Noe taught the least dominant female monkey a skill: to open a container that held pieces of apple.

You and I likely know what happened.  We lived it in junior high. Bring a pack of Oreos to school, you’re everybody’s friend.  Bring a baggie of celery, you dine alone.

And yes, this happened with the vervet monkey.  Upon mastering the skill of opening the container of apple slices, the low monkey of the troop rose in rank.  She began living the high life, being groomed more frequently by other monkeys in the group, not grooming others.

But this wasn’t the focus of the study.  Scientists have long known that monkeys provide goods for other services. What they wondered was: is there an exchange rate?  Do monkeys adjust what they are willing to provide based upon the perceived value of the skill?

Professor Noe decided to teach a second low-ranking monkey the skill.

Here’s where the economic theory really hits its stride.  The first monkey that was able to open the container of apples found her status diminished.  No longer the high-ranking vervet, she started grooming others. More dominant monkeys didn’t give her the respect around the feeding site she had once earned.  She didn’t return to the lowest-status monkey in the group, but somewhere in the middle, equal with the other monkey that had the skill.

An economist would observe that this is the law of supply and demand in action. Monkeys adapting their behavior with what the market provides. When one monkey had a monopoly on the distribution network, it rose in rank.  When it lost that monopoly, when competition was introduced, status decreased.

Professor Noe goes beyond strict economics, however, discussing what he calls the “biological basis of economic behavior,” observing that all these interactions took place without the benefit of a binding contract.  He considers the relationship between the monkeys to be a key component of these decisions as well, observing that an individual’s ability to provide something of value to you will cause you to have positive feelings for that individual.  As such, you are willing to give more in return because you like a partner better.

The law of supply and demand and warm fuzzies, if you will.

This from NPR’s Planet Money podcast:
Economic theory applies to monkeys.
Ronald Noe, a professor of primate ethology at the University of STrasbourg, conducted a study in economics with vervet monkeys.
Vervet monkeys, he observed, have a strong hierarchical structure based upon a monkey’s ability to provide food for the troop.  The troop repays the monkey for its ability to gather food with grooming.  The dominant monkey gets the most grooming, and pretty much doesn’t groom anyone else.  The monkey least able to provide food gets the least grooming, and spends much of its time grooming others.  Grooming is the monkey’s “currency.”
Professor Noe taught the least dominant female monkey a skill: to open a container that held pieces of apple.
You and I likely know what happened.  We lived it in junior high. Bring a pack of Oreos to school, you’re everybody’s friend.  Bring a baggie of celery, you dine alone.
And yes, this happened with the vervet monkey.  Upon mastering the skill of opening the container of apple slices, the low monkey of the troop rose in rank.  She began living the high life, being groomed more frequently by other monkeys in the group, not grooming others.
But this wasn’t the focus of the study.  Scientists have long known that monkeys provide goods for other services. What they wondered was: is there an exchange rate?  Do monkeys adjust what they are willing to provide based upon the perceived value of the skill?
Professor Noe decided to teach a second low-ranking monkey the skill.
Here’s where the economic theory really hits its stride.  The first monkey that was able to open the container of apples found her status diminished.  No longer the high-ranking vervet, she started grooming others. More dominant monkeys didn’t give her the respect around the feeding site she had once earned.  She didn’t return to the lowest-status monkey in the group, but somewhere in the middle, equal with the other monkey that had the skill.
An economist would observe that this is the law of supply and demand in action. Monkeys adapting their behavior with what the market provides. When one monkey had a monopoly on the distribution network, it rose in rank.  When it lost that monopoly, when competition was introduced, status decreased.
Professor Noe goes beyond strict economics, however, discussing what he calls the “biological basis of economic behavior,” observing that all these interactions took place without the benefit of a binding contract.  He considers the relationship between the monkeys to be a key component of these decisions as well, observing that an individual’s ability to provide something of value to you will cause you to have positive feelings for that individual.  As such, you are willing to give more in return because you like a partner better.
The law of supply and demand and warm fuzzies, if you will.
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