Are You Smarter Than A Monkey? Answer This

Here’s a quick test to see if you are smarter than a monkey. Don’t worry, it turns out that monkeys are pretty smart. First, answer the poll question, then continue onwards to read an explanation. Vote first!

(Due to some technical hurdles, please click on the “Read the rest of this entry…” link below to vote! Thanks :))

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You are given $1,000. Which option would you choose? You must choose one.

  • You win $500 guaranteed. (63%, 527 Votes)
  • Based on a coin flip, heads you win $1,000, tails you lose nothing. (37%, 313 Votes)

Total Voters: 840

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You are given $2,000. Which option would you choose? You must choose one.

  • You lose $500 guaranteed. (68%, 581 Votes)
  • Based on a coin flip, heads you lose $1,000, tails you lose nothing. (32%, 272 Votes)

Total Voters: 853

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You did answer the poll first, right?

First, there is no right or wrong answer to the question above (read on for why). I got the inspiration for this experiment from a newly posted TED Talk video sent to me by reader Hedy. Researcher Laurie Santos studies monkeynomics – exploring how monkeys make economic decisions similar to those that humans have to make. You’ve probably heard of behavioral economics, and how humans don’t always make decisions on a purely rational basis. The experiment above dealt with relativity and loss aversion.

The poll you just took was one of two possible polls, randomly selected. (Due to blog cache issues, this won’t be perfectly random every single time, but hopefully close enough.) Either question given is technically the same – either you choose a 50/50 chance between $2,000 and $1,000, or you picked a safe $1,500. But how the question was framed often changes how a human answers. I’ll share the poll results in a day or two (I want a decent sample size). How do monkeys do when faced with the same problem? Watch the video for the answer. (If short on time, skip to time 10:50.)


  1. Not having read through any of the links, if I was broke I’d take the $500. If I had money, I’d go for the coin toss and take the gamble.

  2. So if you get $1000, and you have a 50% chance to get another $1000 or a 100% chance to get another $500, people choose the safe $500. It’s basically 50% chance to walk away with $2000 or $1000 and 100% chance to walk away with $1500, and people choose the $1500.

    But if you get $2000, and you have a 50% chance to lose $1000 or a 100% chance to lose $500, people choose the risk. It’s basically 50% chance to walk away with $2000 or $1000 and 100% chance to walk away with $1500, and apparently people choose the riskier option this time.

    It’s an interesting conclusion, for sure, but this poll appears to disagree 😉

  3. People on this site don’t seem to be much of the gambling type and would follow the philosophy a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

  4. Hmm… interesting poll results so far.

  5. bojangling says:

    Looks like an expected value problem to me. Both answers are the same.

  6. Humans are risk-averse when it comes to loss. I’m not sure that’s about being smart or dumb.

  7. @bojangling: You’re right. I go with statistics and probabilities.

  8. Take the guaranteed $1500.

  9. @bojangling Of course it’s an EV problem, but it’s more than that. It’s about the psychology of walking away with nothing.

    For me, the question was would I want to flip a coin for $0 vs. $1000, or take $500 guaranteed. I chose the $500.

    On the other hand, given the choice of the $1000/$2000 coin flip or the safe $1500, I’d take the coin flip.

    Why the difference? In both cases it’s choosing between two options with equal EV. However, I would feel bad if I walked away with $0, so I chose $500 safe instead of the coin flip.

  10. Awesome video! Makes you wonder if the safer choice means the smarter choice.

  11. Let’s say we must play 4 rounds in a row and can’t lose more than we have.

    With “You lose $500 guaranteed” strategy. We always end up with 0.

    With “heads you lose $1,000, tails you lose nothing”. We still have chances to end up with some positive $.

  12. Can’t wait to see the results, I thought this over and got condused. I tried to relate it to no limit holdem poker and figured the amount of money at stake and prize is not a high enough percentage to the $1500 worth putting in to gain or lose $500

  13. I dunno, I guess the way I looked at it was I was giving $1500 and had an option to bet $500 of it at even money odds. I’d rather gamble the $500 on something more interesting than a coinflip… say a cock fight.

  14. Great question – I actually just watched this video the other day. HIGHLY recommended for those who haven’t.

    What was the sticky point for me was when she said that looking only at the raw data, you wouldn’t be able to discern whether it came from a human or monkey given that it was so similar.

    Wonder what follow-up there’s been.

  15. Framing and all sorts of things bring out biases. Furthermore, they are finding that the fact that the experiments from a lab situation are affecting the results, i.e. that people don’t necessarily act in the real world like they act in experimental situations. As further off shoots, are results different if you aren’t given the money but actually worked for the money. Are they different if we are talking about $100 instead of $1,000? We know people are risk takers when it comes to playing the lottery and the government has parlayed it into a great tax the poor scheme.
    The TED talk was fascinating as many of them are. I would really like an in depth conversation on specifically what they think they will find that will practically help them solve or prevent incidents like the housing crisis. Is the government going to come in and say people must accept the lower price offer for their house because they are acting irrational etc.?

  16. LargeTalons says:

    The point here isn’t that humans (and monkeys) are dumb because they are risk averse. The point is that we are dumb because we make different decisions between the exact same set of choices depending on how the choice is presented. You would expect the same person to make the same choice when two sets of options are presented, given they end in the same result. However, we don’t make the same choice, we base our decision on factors that have nothing to do with the end result. This is stupid, and is the basis for why stock markets crash and why oil wells leak. The point of the video was to find out if this is human nature, or if it has something to do with the way we design systems. Turns out that not only is it human nature, but its also money nature, which suggests that the problem is deep seeded and therefore almost impossible to correct.

  17. LargeTalons says:

    @Jenna: The answers to the questions don’t matter. Whether you are risk averse or a gambler, neither is the “smarter choice”.

  18. good stuff

    I took the $1500 both times

  19. I voted for the coin toss, but my answer would change if the $ amount was higher.

    Suppose it’s $1MM vs $1000? I definitely would go the safe route in that case.

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