Well, there is apparently a literature here also and the discussion has appeared previously on WCI courtesy of Frances. Animals have to make decisions about resources too and can be trained to make choices. European Starlings can make rational decisions. An experiment (Schuck-Paim,Pompilo & Kacelnik (2004)) was conducted in which European Starlings were trained to choose between two rich food sources and one poorer decoy one. The two rich food sources were differentiated by the amount of time/pecking required to receive the food. The poorer decoy offered much smaller amounts for the amount of effort relative to the richer food sources. According to the study, the animals were sometimes “irrational” in preferring the decoy but the choice seemed to be a function of how hungry the birds were–their energetic state. The authors suggest it may be possible that animal preferences are such they are less motivated to focus exclusively on the richest food source when well fed. Does this mean that once animals are well fed they get bored and like to experiment? That seems almost like a human hierarchy of needs.
There seems to be quite a literature out there on animal economic behaviour but not necessarily being written by economists. I came across a post in Psychology Today on whether monkeys understand money and trade and how they are rational in that when engaged in trading games they leave with more than they entered. Moreover, they do not appear to be very sensitive about issues of fairness. Capuchin monkeys apparently make rational economic decisions in many of the same settings that humans do but also make similar mistakes. For example: “capuchins were asked to choose between spending a token on one visible piece of food that half the time gave a return of two pieces, or two pieces of visible food, that half the time gave a return of only one piece. Economic theory predicts that consumers should not care which of these outcomes they receive since they are essentially both 50--50 shots at one or two pieces of food. The capuchins, however, vastly preferred the first gamble, which is essentially a half chance at a bonus, than the second gamble, which is essentially a half chance at a loss.”
Of course, it does start one wondering if animal economic behavior is also a function of their “social and economic” environments. Prairie Dogs, for example are social and live in communities. Do you have some type of concept of cooperative behavior and public good provision when it comes to building their burrows and tunnels and mounting a watch against predators? Are there business cycles in these communities triggered by fluctuations in weather and food supply that affect community behavior? Do some animals care more for the welfare of their community members than others? Monkeys apparently are not as concerned about fairness. How about Prairie Dogs? Aside from giving a whole new dimension to the Keynesian term “animal spirits” are these questions worth pondering in terms of the light they might shed on the human experience? I suppose we will have to wait until the universal translation device mentioned in the CBC article becomes available to have a discussion with our animal kingdom colleagues.