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Monkey CoworkersYou pay peanuts, you get monkeys, right?

But what if you did pay monkeys to work on your team? Would it be so different from working with humans?

Turns out the differences aren’t as big as you might think. Not only do monkeys often behave “like humans,” but psychologists frequently study monkey and ape behavior as a way of devising and evaluating potential models for human behavior.

There’s a whole field of psychology that you can think of as monkeynomics. And it has some valuable lessons to teach us about the ways humans do business, because we’re just another species of primate.

OK, imagine that all your coworkers are monkeys. (If you’re at work right now, look around and try to picture it!) Here’s what you might see:


Chest-Beating and Poop-Throwing

Just like monkeys, your human coworkers have emotions, even if they don’t let the full range show at work. And they express those emotions in all kinds of ways, from yelling to hugging to hiding their food (or their stapler) so you can’t steal it.

Here’s the thing: If you were visiting the zoo and a monkey screamed at you, would you take it personally? Nope, you’d think that monkey was aggressive or upset for its own reasons. So next time someone lets rip with a mighty office tantrum, do the same thing. Their behavior is not your fault or your problem, as long as you’re doing what you’re meant to do. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

One more point worth noting is to shield yourself from poop-throwers. If your working environment includes someone who’s particularly prone to throwing anger and blame around, you might want to build the office equivalent of a zoo’s Plexiglass windows by keeping them at a professional distance. Be helpful as usual, but don’t get drawn into any gossip or arguments with them, and talk to your supervisors if it’s an ongoing problem.


Monkey Business with Money

Psychologist Laurie Santos and economist Keith Chen found that capuchin monkeys accustomed to exchanging tokens for food display a lot of the same feelings and irrational hangups about money as humans do. Chen’s research started out using marshmallows as money, while Santos provided coin-like tokens as a more abstract form of currency.

The choices the monkeys made with their money suggest they feel avarice, envy, risk aversion and loss aversion just like us, and that those feelings dictate their choices about how to use their experimental monkey currency.

They buy more than they need when foods are offered at a lower price than usual. They fail to save money for the future. They figure out which traders are predictable and which vary their products, but they still strike illogical bargains sometimes.

Monkeys also have a keen sense for a ripoff and can tell a fair share from an insultingly unfair split — we might joke about paying peanuts, but even monkeys get pissed off when they’re given fewer peanuts than the next guy!

Let these monkeys remind you that we humans live, work and relate to each other based on ideas of benefit and cost. Nobody likes to feel like they’re losing out, so if one of your coworkers feels unrewarded, underpaid or cut out of a fun project, you can expect some chest-beating or poop-throwing! The fairer your team plays, the better you’ll all get along.



Inside the Monkey Mind

Primates have some ability to imagine what you’re thinking and predict others’ behavior, at least some of the time. Monkeys and chimpanzees have been observed staring each other out, with the winner taking the loser’s food (or money, in some experiments). They were able to interpret the other monkey’s intentions correctly in a battle of wills.

If you’ve ever tried to persuade a coworker to do you a favor you haven’t earned, or tried to steal office glory for yourself, you’ll know how those monkeys feel. Don’t make the mistake of thinking nobody knows your motives!

Not only that, but capuchins have been seen lying to each other by calling out a warning and then grabbing food when the other monkeys look around to find out what the threat is. Crying wolf is a cross-species deception tactic, so watch out for coworkers making a fuss just to distract your attention.

At the same time, don’t believe that your colleagues are paying you much attention at all — human or monkey, we primates are usually too busy worrying about our own hangups and screwups to spend time viewing the world from other people’s perspectives.

What do you think? Is your job making a monkey of you, or are you the zookeeper?


Sophie Lizard is a freelance writer fascinated by the psychology of work. She also teaches fellow writers how to make real money blogging — grab her free Ultimate List of Better-Paid Blogging Gigs to get started.



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