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Canadian psychology professor tests if monkeys can gamble like humans

Casino chipsGiven that there are so many similarities between monkeys and humans (skeletal structure, eating habits and the ability to walk upright), it is not that surprising that we have a few things in common. However, this scientist is taking it to a whole other level by investigating whether or not monkeys can gamble like humans. Yes, you read that right. Gamble. Dr Jean-Baptiste Leca from the University of Lethbridge, Dr Elsa Addessi and Dr Rob Williams, are exploring whether monkeys behave in ways that are similar to how humans react in terms of gambling. This follows his monkeys bartering project in which he studied monkeys stealing objects from Balinese tourists and then exchanging these objects for what they really wanted – which is food.

What makes this study different?

This time around they will test the monkeys’ abilities to complete a set of gambling scenarios. The Alberta Gambling Research institute is funding the study. As opposed to the previous study, this time there will be some uncertainty as to what reward the monkeys will be receiving. At times the monkeys won’t get any food as a reward, other times a much smaller or bigger amount than they expected, as is the scenario at a casino.

They will look at how the monkeys react when they do not know what to expect. Whether they tend to, like humans, make poor choices after losing. Will they fail to see the value of greater rewards after a delay, instead favouring smaller, more immediate rewards? Do they tend to choose getting bigger rewards with a smaller chance of winning or smaller rewards with a higher chance of winning?

In the past these types of studies have been carried out in a lab setting, but this will be the first time conducting a minimally invasive gambling experiment on wild animals. The monkeys subjects are also the same ones used in the bartering project, thus they have already established a bartering ability. Similar studies were only done on captive, lab-trained and socially isolated primates.

If the researcher can successfully teach these monkeys to gamble, it will give great insight into the how irrational economic behaviours like gambling originate.

Other human abilities monkeys possess

Cooking: Kanzi, a 31-year-old bonobo, likes to roast marshmallows and cook hamburgers. He does not make his own frying pan and spatula, but he does know how to use them. He also lights his fire by using matches.

Using money: Scientists in Connecticut taught seven monkeys how to use money. They spent a few months teaching them that they could exchange money for food. Once they caught on they were given 12 tokens to spend as they wish. After noting which products were more in demand, scientists changed their prices. The monkeys in turn changed their changing habits, preferring to buy the cheaper food.

Prostitution: Right after being taught how to steal, one monkey exchanged one of the stolen coins for sex from another monkey. The prostitute monkey then used the coin to buy a grape.

Using computers: Apps for Apes is a programme that uses iPads to help prevent orangutans from getting bored or depressed. They tend to stick to children’s games but also watch nature documentaries.

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