'Freakonomics' writer talks monkey business

Speaking at AIIM Expo, Stephen Dubner says upcoming book will shed light on human crime and what monkeys do with hard-won cash.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
BOSTON--What do data management specialists like even more than servers? Quirky economic statistics and tales of horny monkeys, apparently.

Stephen J. Dubner, the final keynote speaker at the AIIM Expo, a leading conference on data management, packed the grand ballroom with double the audience that witnessed the keynote speech from Microsoft's Jeff Teper.

Dubner is co-author of Freakonomics, the 2005 best seller that featured plain-spoken economic analysis on sociological phenomena like the correlation between abortions and crime rates and how you can tell that sumo wrestlers and public school teachers sometimes cheat.

Stephen J. Dubner

The large crowd was given a payoff. Dubner said that yes, there will be a second Freakonomics book, and he shared some of its contents.

Remember "Sadir," the grad student from the first book? He struck an unlikely relationship with a leading Chicago crack-cocaine dealer that led to revelations on the economic details and hierarchy of the drug world economy.

In what Dubner described as a practice "oddly reminiscent of Henry James," Sadir was given letters of introduction by the Chicago dealer "JT" so he could gain entry into the New York underworld. Sadir has been studying the economics behind prostitution and carjacking rings for the past few years. His findings will be featured in the next book by Dubner and co-author Steven D. Levitt, both of whom still maintain the Freakonomics blog.

Dubner shared, in detail, another study to be featured that used capuchin monkeys to examine the psychological effects of money.

"Ask interesting and hard questions of the data and you will find the truth," said Dubner.

At a lab under the supervision of veterinarians and animal psychologists in New Haven, Conn., Yale economist Keith Chen taught the capuchins how to use washers as currency in exchange for treats.

"Morality is a set of ideas (about) how each of us, individually and collectively, want the world to work," Dubner said. "Freakonomics shows how the world really is. You can't change the world if you don't understand how it really works."

The capuchins, known for their love of sweets, were not allowed to have money when in the general population, but only when in the testing area.

Chen tested economic theories like price shocking by varying prices of favorites like Jell-O cubes in comparison with grapes and apple slices, and found the monkeys responded similarly to humans by budgeting and making the most of their money.

He also devised two games that showed monkeys could end up feeling as if they'd won or lost, even though they'd actually broken even. Their seemingly irrational preference for the "winning" game had Chen questioning how useful the monkeys would be as a touchstone for studying human behavior. Then he found that a similar study of day traders conducted by another researcher resulted in the same psychological preference. Even when they came out even, the day traders irrationally preferred to feel they won, rather than lost money.

The topper to Dubner's stories to the AIIM audience involved an incident in which one of the capuchins threw a tray of washers that ended up spilling into the general population area. The monkeys, as expected, fought for the coins and, except for one, were easily bribed with the opportunity to purchase food in order for researchers to get the washers back.

"Out of the corner of his eye, Chen saw that one monkey gave a coin to another (instead of rushing to exchange it for treats.) He thinks, am I witnessing the first instance of monkey altruism? No. He was actually witnessing something he said he really wished he hadn't seen," said Dubner.

After a brief grooming ritual, the monkeys who exchanged the coin started to have sex. Immediately after the incident, the paid monkey went over to Chen to get food in exchange for returning the coin, Dubner said.

Based on the crowd's response to Dubner's tales, the second book would seem to have a good shot at the best-seller list, too.