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What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Being Human

Some of Laurie Santos's most insightful research was sparked by an embarrassing incident. One day, monkeys — her research subjects — stole all the fruit she needed to run a study. She left the research site early for the day.

On the boat ride home from Cayo Santiago, the island where the monkeys lived, Santos reflected on the monkeys' mischief.

"It's not just that we're dumb researchers and they can outsmart us," she says. "They're specifically trying to steal from us when we're not aware of what they're doing."

Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, decided to study the monkeys' theft. She found that they selectively stole from the person who couldn't see them.

"In other words, they're rationally calculating whether or not someone could detect that they're about to do something dastardly," she says.

It was behavior befitting a human.

Over the years Santos has discovered other similarities in how humans and non-human primates act. She's also pinpointed important differences, helping us understand which capacities are unique to humans.

This comparison between humans and other animals, Santos says, is essential for making any claims that humans are unique.

"There's no way to study what makes humans special if you only study humans. You actually have to turn to all the other critters in the animal kingdom," she says.

This week on Hidden Brain, we learn what other animals can teach us about us.

Additional Resources

"Studying Monkeys to See What Makes Humans Special" by Becky Ferreira in Motherboard

"Animal Crackers" video

"Spontaneous representations of small numbers of objects by rhesus macaques: Examinations of content and format" by Marc D. Hauser and Susan Carey in Cognitive Psychology

"Capuchin monkeys punish those who have more" by Kristin L. Leimgruber, Alexandra G. Rosati and Laurie R. Santos in Evolution and Human Behavior

"Capuchin monkeys do not show human-like pricing effects" by Rhia Catapano, Nicholas Buttrick, et. al in Frontiers in Psychology

"The Evolutionary Roots of Human Decision Making" by Laurie R. Santos and Alexandra G. Rosati in The Annual Review of Psychology

"Do young rhesus macaques know what others see?: A comparative developmental perspective" by Alyssa M. Arre, Chelsey S. Clark and Laurie R. Santos in American Journal of Primatology

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.