Tag Archives: loss aversion

We are all Monkeys

We are all Monkeys

“Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.”

 –  Adam Smith

Two months back, the stories about Sweta Prasad rained down every media outlet in the nation, be it print media or electronic media, and were pushed down our throat like a hot soup in cold morning . On September 02, 2014, nation was bombarded with the news that National award winning actress Sweta Prasad was caught “red handed” in a prostitution racket.

Normally, such news are tabloid worthy that wouldn’t require much attention from the larger part of the crowd, however this case was main headline and turned a scandal by main stream media.  Without any consideration to the persons involved in this incident, the media blatantly published the name of the actress and much more details. A more courteous and proper way could be to report news without mentioning the specific names until the court proves the suspects guilty. Not only did media enjoy having a field day and making a public trial of Sweta, they conveniently ignored to mention her “clients’” names or that one business man’s name that was found soliciting or was “the customer” at the time of raid.

Why was Sweta so publicly humiliated even before she was found guilty of any crime? Mainly because of the choices she made, the choices that we might not approve as a society or even individually. And just because we don’t approve those said choices we might go as far to say that these choices harm society and “Indian Culture” (I am not agreeing or disagreeing with this opinion as I don’t have enough data to support either). However, we just ignored the fact that she is an adult and whatever she has done was not done in a public place or in the presence of minors. At the time of media trial, she wasn’t even suspected for the prostitution racket (a much more serious crime); she was just the suspect of soliciting sex for her own person.

According to the Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA) 1956, – the primary law dealing with the status of sexual workers – prostitutes can practise their trade privately but cannot legally solicit or ‘seduce’ customers in public.  According to Wikipedia, a BBC articles states that prostitution is illegal in India; the Indian law does not refer to the practice of selling one’s own sexual service as “prostitution”. Clients can be punished for sexual activity in proximity to a public place. Organised prostitution (brothels, prostitution rings, pimping, etc.) is illegal. As long as it is done individually and voluntarily, a woman (male prostitution is not recognised in any law in India) can use her body in exchange for material benefit. In particular, the law forbids a sex worker to carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place. Unlike as is the case with other professions, sex workers are not protected under normal labour laws, but they possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire and possess all the rights of other citizens.

So, even according to the law, Sweta was not guilty of any crime but on the contrary the business man who paid for her services was truly a guilty person here. Also, I might be wrong as I am not a lawyer (someone can correct me on this) but since it seems that Selling sex for money is itself not illegal, but advertising it or arranging it (as a pimp) are; I think our justice system would hardly ever bothers about details like that when the facts can be twisted and IPC sections “close enough” to the truth get used all the time.

One close look at this whole media festival surrounding Sweta incident shows how greedily our media grabs the chance of sensationalizing the news. Just because a story – where child actor becomes adult prostitute – offers a chance to be judgmental, saddened, outraged to the readers, it sells and so the media will sensationalize it.

We can’t even stomach the fact that she “chose” this practise of selling sex not because she was forced to but because (speculation on my part) she found it much more financially rewarding at comparatively easy effort.  Newspapers printed wrong statement of her, right after she was arrested and was kept at rescue home, stating that she was forced into the prostitution because of “helpless, and with no option left to choose”. However Sweta herself after her release from rescue home denied giving any statement like that saying she was in rescue home where she was cut off from the world and wasn’t even allowed to talk with family. And by the way, she – in the same interview denies – to having participated in prostitution but I still do not find it very clear to have it included here. I might be wrong and would gladly accept it if I am.

We as a nation are being regressive over the time instead of being progressive. We are a nation where centuries ago writers like Śūdraka celebrated the freedom to have one of the main character as a prostitute in his plays like Mṛcchakatika with an ease, without having to worry about any scrutiny of the society and yet a mere mention of prostitution by a known face in current times makes us so uncomfortable that we actively try to find “causes” and “reasons” behind her chosen profession. We can’t just stomach the fact that the natural instinct for any living organism is to have food and sex and it would do anything to get either; be it buying, earning or just taking away forcefully.

Now, let me take you to an experiment done in Yale University.*

Keith Chen, a Stanford graduate and an associate professor of economics at Yale was quite puzzled by the above quote from the father of economics – Adam Smith – which implies that only humans are interested in monetary trade. He was curious about the impact of teaching the usage of money to some monkeys. So, He with his co-worker Venkat Lakshminarayanan started research on the same subject. They choose seven capuchins to work with at a lab set up by the psychologist Laurie Santos at Yale–New Haven Hospital. The simple reason to choose capuchins was the fact that these types of monkeys have very small brains which mostly focus on food and sex.

The lab had a large cage where all seven monkeys were held and at the end of the large cage was designed a small cage for testing which allowed only one monkey to be entered. Chen designed money in the form of silver coin with a hole in it.

In the first step, Chen taught the monkeys the monetary value of the coins. When given coins the monkeys would sniff it and when they realize that the coins are non edible, they would toss them away. So, Chen and his colleagues gave the monkey a coin and then showed a treat. Whenever the monkey gave the coin back to the researcher, it got the treat. And thus, after months, the monkeys eventually learned the trade value of the coins and also learned that they can be used to buy treats.

One of the surprising things was to learn that even monkeys had preferences and choices for the treats and they would give the coins to the only researcher that has the treat which they like. Just like the market place where different people spend their money only at the vender that serves their purpose, monkeys learned to trade money for their wants or desires.

In Second step, Chen taught them the idea of inflation. Chen changed price for the treats e.g. if a sweet was bought by only one coin earlier, now the monkey required to pay three coins for that same sweet. So, how did the monkey react to this concept of inflation? Well, Monkeys started behaving rationally and with increased food prices, they started to buy less of the expensive food. Yet, another example where monkeys just behaved like human.  We all know that with increase in price the demand decreases.

We have seen from these experiments of Chen and Lakshminarayanan that the rational behaviour of monkeys regarding money is very identical to that of humans. Monkeys behave the same rational ways humans behave in normal monetary trade. But, what about irrational behaviours? If we have learned anything from human history, it’s that human nature is to be “loss aversion.” It means that given choice we would prefer to have a lot less if the there was not any probability of a loss even if with the slight chance of losing the potential gain is high. We can see this psychological factor in almost all stock trading and gambling games.  When it comes to the losing or gaining something, the irrational behaviour comes to play in decision making among humans. Do monkeys behave same way as humans do?

Chen taught monkeys the concept of gambling to observe if they behave irrationally in the situation of loss and gain.  He staged two games of gamble where for one game he showed the monkeys a grape and then flipped a coin. Depending upon a coin toss the monkey got either a real grape or two grapes from which one was a real grape and the other was a fake grape.  For the second game, he showed the monkeys two grapes but in this game the monkeys got either two grapes as shown or one of the two grapes was taken back.

Now once again let’s make this games clear, In first game, the monkeys were showed one grape, so they either got one grape (let’s say for heads) or two grapes from which one was real and the other was fake(let’s say for tails). So, in either case the monkeys got one grape since for tails one of the two grapes was a fake one. In second game, the monkeys were showed two grapes, so when the coin is heads, they got both grapes but in the event of tails the researcher took one of the two grapes and so the monkeys got only one grape.

One thing to be noted here is that in both games, the minimum number of grapes the monkeys got were the same amount of grapes (one). However, the way these games are designed, in the first game it seems that the monkeys win an extra grape (potential gain) and in second game it seems that the monkeys lose one grape (potential loss).

One might think that the gambling strategies are difficult enough for human themselves so it’s out of the question that the inferior brained monkeys are any way capable of having any dilemma regarding the choices here. Obviously, being the simple minded that they are, they should not be worried about choosing the game since both games gave them at least one grape at the end. However, once again monkeys proved themselves exactly like humans with identical emotional and irrational behaviour regarding money. Monkeys chose first game more just because in the first game they didn’t have to lose anything and in second game they had to lose. This is the classic irrational behaviour commonly seen amongst human where just to avert the pain of losing we prefer the sure bet. Rational monkeys should not be wary about the game since both games secured the same minimum output and yet they chose the one where they didn’t have to deal with the psychological effect called “loss aversion.”

So far, these researchers and we all have learned very surprising facts about monkey brains and their identical behaviours to humans. However what happened next was not only shocking but it was totally unbelievable if it wasn’t for the fact that this behaviour was observed in a lab based experiment in one of the most prestigious universities. Once one of the monkeys – when given twelve coins in testing cage – didn’t collect the coins to buy food / treats as he normally would, instead he threw all the coins in the main cage. As soon as he did this, a riot occurred in the cage to collect the coins. Monkeys again behaved the same way as humans would in a situation where chunk of money was thrown among the crowd; they looted as much as they can. Not only did the monkeys loot the money, they also refused to return the money to the researchers who tried to take back the money. Monkeys now learned that a simple way to earn money is (what our politicians do) crime or taking what is not necessarily yours.

If this is surprising for you, what followed that day would be shocking. Avid all this chaos, where monkeys were looting the coins that the one monkey threw; there was this one monkey who instead of buying food for the coins he looted as he normally should, gave his coin to another monkey. Wow, what a relief? Monkeys are different than humans after all, right? Well, turns out that monkey didn’t just “give away” his coins to another monkey for free. And why would he, if he can buy food from these coins, there is no point in giving away his coins to another monkey, is there? Our very generous monkey started having sex with the monkey whom he gave the coins right after it gave her the coins. And as soon as they are done with the sex, the monkey who received coins as the payment of her sexual favour spent it to buy grapes. Yes, you read it right, the first incident of monkey prostitution (or animal prostitution for that matter) was observed in the lab experiments of one of the best universities in the world. And surprisingly enough the monkeys were not even needed to be taught that. The rational behavioural concepts of money, the value of money, inflation etc are learned very fast by monkeys as well the irrational concepts like “loss aversion” but what was shocking is that monkeys just instinctively figured out prostitution.

Unfortunately, these results were shocking enough for the authorities to stop this experiment in the fear of damaging the social structure of monkeys by introducing the concept of money.

India is a hypocritic country. A very natural instinct like prostitution – which is now proved to be found even in animals and was widely celebrated in ancient India – is such a big taboo that it can’t be discussed openly in public forums and we can’t even state our opinion on that. Indian law itself also tends to be so unclear and grey that it mostly victimizes the party (seller) which is clearly at no fault in the eyes of law.  We as a nation don’t have any problem with sexualizing our pop culture that almost all minors are addicted to, have a porn star as our bollywood star which are mostly the role model of youngsters (not that there is anything wrong with having a porn star working in bollywood), objectifying women in all the media be it films, television serials, news or music; but just the mention of prostitution and we flip out. We’ll watch vulgar and sexually intense bollywood content in our living room with our family, we’ll take pride in our historical temples that have erotic sculptures but if some young couple holds hand or kisses in public we flip out and start nationwide movement to oppose. We as a nation need to handle sex with more liberal, progressive and mature manner.

November 08, 2014

* References and further reading

  • Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, “SuperFreakonomics,”  2009