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He may be the only economist conducting monkey experiments, which puts him at slight odds with his psychologist collaborators (who are more interested in behavior itself than in the incentives that produce the behavior) as well as with certain economist colleagues.
"I love interest rates, and I'm willing to talk about their kind of stuff all the time," he says, speaking of his fellow economists.
"But I can tell that they're biting their tongues when I tell them what I'm working on."It is sometimes unclear, even to Chen himself, exactly what he is working on.
When he and Santos, his psychologist collaborator, began to teach the Yale capuchins to use money, he had no pressing research theme.
The stooge and the jerk were then sent to play the game with the other tamarins.
If, for instance, the price of Jell-O fell (two cubes instead of one per token), would the capuchin buy more Jell-O and fewer grapes?
The capuchins responded rationally to tests like this -- that is, they responded the way most readers of The Times would respond.
"The capuchin has a small brain, and it's pretty much focused on food and sex," says Keith Chen, a Yale economist who, along with Laurie Santos, a psychologist, is exploiting these natural desires -- well, the desire for food at least -- to teach the capuchins to buy grapes, apples and Jell-O.
"You should really think of a capuchin as a bottomless stomach of want," Chen says.