Capuchin monkeys, unlike humans, don't assume that a higher price tag means better quality, according to a new study.
The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, demonstrates how vulnerable we are to some seller pricing tactics. It also reveals that monkeys are cleverer than we are, at least in one important respect.
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"We know that capuchin monkeys share a number of our own economic biases," senior author Laurie Santos said in a press release. "Our previous work has shown that monkeys are loss-averse, irrational when it comes to dealing with risk, and even prone to rationalizing their own decisions, just like humans. But this is one of the first domains we've tested in which monkeys show more rational behavior than humans do."
Santos, a Yale University psychologist, and her team were inspired to do the research after noting how people consistently tend to confuse the price of an item with its quality. For example, a prior study showed that people think a wine labeled with an expensive price tag tastes better than the same wine labeled with a cheaper price tag.
In yet another study, people thought a painkiller worked better when they paid a higher price for it.
For the new research, Santos and Rhia Catapano - a former Yale undergraduate who ran the study as part of her senior honors thesis - and their colleagues designed a series of four experiments to test whether capuchins would prefer higher-priced, yet equivalent, items.
They taught monkeys to make choices in an experimental "market," and to buy novel foods at different prices. Control studies amazingly showed that monkeys understood the differences in price between the foods.
When the researchers tested whether monkeys preferred the taste of the higher-priced edibles, however, they were surprised to find that the monkeys didn't show the same bias as humans did.
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Santos and her colleagues think that differences in the responses of humans and capuchins could stem from the varied experiences that monkeys and people have with "markets" (in this case, referring to acquisition of coveted items), and how the two primate groups behave as a result.
"For humans, higher price tags often signal that other people like a particular good," Santos explained. "Our richer social experiences with markets might be the very thing that leads us, and not monkeys, astray in this case."
Photo: Capuchin monkeys investigating a food item. Credit: Frans de Waal, Wikimedia Commons