Chimps fair or foul

I went to a conference a few years ago at the LSE; if you look at the speakers you’ll see why. Although it proved to be patchier than I’d hoped, I was captivated by Frans de Waal’s contribution, outlining some wonderful research on the social behaviour of apes. One highlight, which is now finally coming to publication, was the finding that chimpanzees judge reward not just on its instrumental value, but whether it is even-handed or otherwise. They reject a moderate reward if they see an unfamiliar ape get a better one. Good to know that apes throw their toys out of the pram as well.

The explanatory gloss on this is that apes have a ‘sense of fair play’. Another angle that comes to mind is that preferential reward may be seen as the forming of a dominance hierarchy, and the smart ape should make it clear that it’s not going to acquiesce -a nuclear threat to dissuade a minor loss.

Possibly this is merely talking at different levels of causation – the monkeys may have such a sense due to the need to hold their own in a fluctuating dominance hierarchy. It’s also very possible that my thought doesn’t fit with chimpanzee social structure at all. Regardless, it keeps the mind sharp to explore the gloss at least as much as the nuts and bolts of a study. Simian Cold War, or chimp village cricket: can you find a better tack?

The High Street persuaders

The online version of the Telegraph has an article on how psychology is used in shops to persuade us to part with our hard earned cash and lists some common tricks and techniques.

“The most important rule as a shopper is to keep your wits about you,” Karl says. “If you enter a retailer’s property, in one sense, you lay yourself open to any tricks or techniques that they might want to spring on you. The best armoury you can have is to keep your eyes open and your ear to the ground and see what’s going on.”

Link to article (via

Don’t think, sleep!

Sometimes it isn’t how much sleep you got that’s important, but how much sleep you think you got.

Our own perception of how much we slept during a night can be startlingly inaccurate. Dr Allison Harvey (now of UC Berkley) took insomniacs and measured how much they actually slept during the night. Despite the insomniacs reporting that they had only slept for two or three hours, they had in fact been asleep for an average of 7 hours – only 35 minutes less than a control group who didn’t have any problems sleeping.

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Choice Irrationalities

There was a great Analysis programme on radio 4 last night: The Economy on the Couch which was about behavioural economics, neuroeconomics (whatever that is) and ways in which we fail to act like the rational agents that standard economic theory supposes us to be

One irrationality- a human frailty for fairness- is revealed by a thing called the Ultimatum Game. The Ultimatum Game works like this. I am offered some money, say £100, on the condition that I share it with you. I get to decide the split, and you get to say if you accept it or not. If you accept, we get the money in the proportions I determined, if you reject my split then neither of us gets anything. So what would you do if I offered £1 to you, leaving me with the other ninety-nine?

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