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It took several months of rudimentary repetition to teach the monkeys that these tokens were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day.
Having gained that understanding, a capuchin would then be presented with 12 tokens on a tray and have to decide how many to surrender for, say, Jell-O cubes versus grapes.
This first step allowed each capuchin to reveal its preferences and to grasp the concept of budgeting.
A quick scan of the current literature reveals that top economists are studying subjects like prostitution, rock 'n' roll, baseball cards and media bias.
In economist-speak, the capuchins adhered to the rules of utility maximization and price theory: when the price of something falls, people tend to buy more of it.
Chen next introduced a pair of gambling games and set out to determine which one the monkeys preferred.
"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.
The essential idea was to give a monkey a dollar and see what it did with it.