Question: Why is important to study the evolutionary origins
of our behavior?
Laurie Santos: One reason it’s
important to actually study the evolutionary origins of say, you know,
our economic troubles and so on is that, oftentimes when we learn some
behavior or some bias, is built in natural selection, it means it’s
actually hard to overcome. So, you know, it’s really hard to convince
people that cheesecake doesn’t inherently kind of taste good, right?
You know, sugary, fatty things are just built in by natural selection;
we’re going to like them. By the same token, it’s really hard to
convince people not to flinch when there’s some moving object coming at
your head, or there’s some scary spider, or so on. These are these
kinds of biases that are built in via natural selection. They’re pretty
old and they’re also really hard to turn off, even when we’re aware of
The problem in the economic domain is, my guess is that
the biases we are seeing in us and in monkeys are going to be equally
hard to turn off. But these are ones that it’s hard to even be aware of
how strong they are. So, I think one of the important things about
seeing these kinds of errors in monkeys is, it’s just not only that they
are old, but they’re going to be really hard to get over. So, policies
that try to deal with these biases it might be well served to say,
"Look, let’s just assume that these biases are in place and how can we
design policies that can accept that sort of deal with them as they
Question: Do monkeys have an awareness of their
own biases when making tough decisions?
Laurie Santos: Yeah. So one thing we're really interested in is
whether monkeys have the opportunity to think twice, right? Now we can
experience this bias and succumb to it, we can also be very meta about
it and think about, "Well, I can talk to you now about these biases,"
you know, the monkeys probably aren’t you know, sitting around the
forest talking to each other about the kinds of economic biases they
So the fact that we can kind of think twice, pause,
kind of inhibit this sort of instinctual bias... that gives us a weapon
against these sorts of biases. But in some sense we have to know
they’re there in the first place to actually implement these kind of
"Wait, wait, wait, let me stop, pause, think about it and try to come up
with the right decision." So, I think awareness that we have these
biases in these everyday situations and that we’re really affected by
them is actually very important.
Recorded May 21, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont