Monkeys and Risk

Quartz highlights fascinating research on attitudes toward risk – in monkeys. Economists often categorize how people feel about risky situations – like investing in the stock market or gambling in a casino – into two groups: individuals can be risk averse (generally disliking risky situations) or risk preferring (generally more willing to take risks).

And, while the majority of economic research suggests most individuals are risk averse, there are groups to whom this may not apply. For example, people with higher incomes may be more inclined to take risks (more risk preferring) than people with lower incomes (who tend to be more risk averse). Those strapped for cash often tend toward more prudent investments, for example.

It turns out that this same phenomenon can be observed in nature:

Scientists spent 20 days training rhesus macaques to gamble by choosing between pie charts which presented different probabilities of winning water. They were presented with two options: the safe choice offered them at least a little water for sure, while a risky choice generally offered them a bigger ration of water but only a fifty-fifty shot of getting it.

“Wealth” in this experiment was also determined by water—specifically by measuring the concentration of chemicals in the monkeys’ blood to determine how well-hydrated they were. Researchers classed dehydrated monkeys as “poor” and well-hydrated ones as “rich.”

Wealthy monkeys, researchers found, generally took greater risks than poor monkeys. As a macaque became more dehydrated, it became more likely to choose the safe option. A wealthy macaque was more likely to chance getting no water at all for the possibility of getting a lot of it. Taken as a whole, the monkeys were slightly risk-averse; they were a bit more likely to choose the safe option on average.

Our attitudes toward risk may be more deeply ingrained into our ways of thinking than we realize!


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