The Monkey Economic Game for CIOs

Posted on September 20, 2010


Laurie Santos, in a recent remarkable TED Talks “A monkey economy as irrational as ours“, laid out two important biological bias in the way humans are making decision: a loss aversion and thinking in relative terms.

To prove this theory she built from scratch a framework of  the financial market and make it test by brown capuchin monkeys. In the speech she demonstrates how this evolutionary relatives are making similar mistakes as we do.

The cornerstone of the demonstration is the test of the two following hypothesis:

Gain Scenario : You have been given $ 1,000, you now have to choose to either

  1. Take risk: (Head) You get $ 1,000 more – (Tail) You get $, 0 more
  2. Play it safe: You just get $ 500 more with certainty

Loss Scenario: You have been given $2,000, you now have to choose to either

  1. Take risk: (Head) You loose $ 1, 000 – (Tail) You loose $ 0
  2. Play it Safe: You just loose $ 500 with certainty

The bold propositions are the ones that humans tend to choose and the ones that monkeys took. This kind of decision played out in lots of bad way in humans. They are why stock investors hold onto losing stocks longer because they are evaluating them in relative terms. They are why people in the housing market refused to sell their house because they don’t want to sell at a loss.

For IT investments it could explains:

  • Why maintenance contracts are more and more suspended, over loosing money by continuing them
  • Why SOA investments are postponed to the benefits of cost cutting programs

Here are few practical examples where the enforcement of the underlying rule of these hypothesis apply in the CIO life.

    Scenario 1 – Gain

    Fixing Old Invest in new
    Focus on control Training the operation
    Invest in best of breed Implement an integrated software
    Develop Security procedures & technologies Develop responsible workforce
    Incremental innovation Disruptive innovation

    Scenario 2 – Loss



    Stop paying maintenance fees Continuing the support
    Do nothing Fixing
    Outsourcing Developing the workforce
    Continue with a risky investment Stop the project

I hope these new insights will help the CIO community delivering an appropriate statement to their board when presenting their strategic investments and

  • Focus on sure gain rather than potential benefits
  • Focus on potential stability versus sure loss
  • Lay out investment in relative terms when helping board select the right project

    … of course all of this must be done to the benefit of the company and strong ethical behavior must apply.

    I invite you to look at this fantastic talk “A monkey economy as irrational as ours” – about 20 minutes speech available in 13 languages. Great show.