Monkey Economics

Dear Matty:

In the movie Party Girl, with Parker Posey, there is a reference that the Dewey decimal system is so easy to learn that it was once taught to monkeys. True?

-- Daniel the Manual, via e-mail

The head librarian sneers at employee Posey, who's just misfiled a book, "A trained monkey learned the [Dewey decimal] system on PBS in a matter of hours." No, no one's ever tried to teach a monkey the Dewey decimal system. But if they did, of course, the documentary would air on PBS. Jokes aren't funny when you have to s'plain them. Instead, I'll tell you some real monkey stuff -- from a Yale economist. He taught a bunch of capuchin monkeys to "buy" chips of apple and cucumber with metal disks, one treat per disk. When the researcher put the apples on sale, two for one, the monkeys immediately learned to spot a good deal and stocked up on apples. The monkeys even tried counterfeiting -- trying to use cuke chips in place of metal disks. They hid their disks from their fellow primates. And when one group of monkeys was given more disks for performing the same task as the others, the underpaid monkeys started big screeching fights. They even learned to gamble for the chance to get extra treats. Sound familiar?

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