The Monkeys of Wall Street

monkey2Scientific American is running a 60-Second Science audio clip of primatologist Frans de Waal’s address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.  He discusses a frequently cited experiment he co-conducted that tested whether monkeys are able to distinguish between the relative value of rewards: a cucumber or a grape.  Grapes win every time, and the monkeys left with cucumber aren’t too happy about it.

If this sounds familar, it might be because, as de Waal told the audience, most of us these days are monkeys left munching on bits of cucumber while we’ve been watching the Wall Street monkeys munch on grapes.

Last month, Dr. de Waal did an interview here with me in which he mentioned this study and another humorous connection to our current economic situation:

You were one of the principal researchers involved in the now famous “grape / cucumber” study.  Briefly, how was this study conducted and what did you discover? 

With Sarah Brosnan (at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center ), we gave monkeys different rewards for the same task. If they get the same reward everything is fine and dandy, and no one complains, even if they just get cucumber. But if their companion gets grapes for the same task, all hell breaks loose and they refuse to perform the task, and often refuse the food itself.

I was reminded of this during the recent outcry in the media about the CEO’s of the car industry who had flown to Washington in private jets. We humans are very sensitive to inequity, and now that we are going through some rough times, these feelings surface very easily. The CEO’s were munching on grapes, whereas all of us have to content ourselves with cucumber.

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Filed under About Neuroscience, About Research

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