Researchers want to find out if monkeys can gamble as well as they barter

Researchers always knew monkeys were clever.

And recently, just how clever.

When experts at Canada’s University of Lethbridge found macaque monkeys were swiping items from Balinese tourists in order to barter them for what they really wanted — food — the world was wowed.

Now, they are trying to find out if the monkeys can gamble, too.

“To our knowledge, our study will be the first time minimally invasive experimental gambling research will be conducted on free-ranging nonhuman animals,” Dr. Jean-Baptiste Leca says in a statement. “What’s more, our monkey subjects have an already established, spontaneously expressed, and culturally transmitted bartering propensity.”

Leca, a psychology professor, is working with Dr. Rob Williams a gambling research expert at the school’s faculty of health sciences, and Dr. Elsa Addessi, a cognitive psychologist and primatologist at the National Research Center in Rome, Italy.

Previous research found long-tailed macaque monkeys would steal jewelry, even sunglasses right off the faces of tourists, and then lure people in to trade food for the stolen items.

A Balinese macaque is holding stolen eyeglasses and a woman is offering fruit as a food reward. A.Michels/University of Lethbridge

The new project will begin in Bali in July.

This time, the gambling scenario will involve uncertainty around the type of reward.

“Sometimes they won’t get any food reward, or a much smaller amount of food than they expect or are used to,” Leca adds. “Even after proffering their token to the experimenter, they lose. Other times, they will get more food than they expect, like a big win scenario at the casino.”

The goal is to build on research confined to the lab.

And, researchers say if they can turn bartering monkeys into gamblers, the study could give “greater insight to the evolution of irrational human economic behaviours –- such as gambling.”

And that could help explain why monkeys — and people — make bad choices, even when it works against them in the long run.

Photos University of Lethbridge

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