A powerful approach to understanding decision-making is to utilize the methodology of experimental economics. Economic games derived from experimental economics provide opportunities to better understand how and why individuals make the decisions that they do. This approach is of particular utility to comparative researchers. One common challenge to comparative research is that studies may not be comparable due to methodological differences, minimizing the effectiveness of the comparative approach and providing little insight into the evolution of the behaviors. Utilizing an experimental economics approach allows for a standardized methodology that is comparable not only between nonhuman species, but also to humans. This allows for more profound insight into the evolution of decision-making behavior. Many of the research topics in my lab take advantage of this approach.
For instance, a current project in the CEBUS lab compares three species of nonhuman primates and humans in their response to the Assurance game, a coordination game derived from experimental economics. We are currently investigating whether these species will coordinate when given the opportunity to do so and how factors such as partner identity, equity in payoffs, and the context of the task affect their performance. This approach has not only indicated strong continuities in outcome across the primates, but also informative differences. For example, not surprisingly, humans perform better than other species when given the opportunity to talk about the game, but when methodologies are held constant, and no instruction is given or conversation is allowed, humans’ performance looks like the performance of other primates. Perhaps most powerfully, we have evidence that while humans and rhesus monkeys coordinate equally well in these games, they do so using different cognitive mechanisms. Results like these highlight the importance of a multi-pronged approach for a full understanding of cognition and behavior. We are currently expanding this line of inquiry to investigate responses in other economic games in order to learn more about the evolution of decision-making across the primates.