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"But I can tell that they're biting their tongues when I tell them what I'm working on."It is sometimes unclear, even to Chen himself, exactly what he is working on.

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That's because economics is in essence the study of incentives, and how people -- perhaps even monkeys -- respond to those incentives.

A quick scan of the current literature reveals that top economists are studying subjects like prostitution, rock 'n' roll, baseball cards and media bias.

Chen proudly calls himself a behavioral economist, a member of a growing subtribe whose research crosses over into psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

He began his monkey work as a Harvard graduate student, in concert with Marc Hauser, a psychologist.

The Harvard monkeys were cotton-top tamarins, and the experiments with them concerned altruism.

Two monkeys faced each other in adjoining cages, each equipped with a lever that would release a marshmallow into the other monkey's cage.The tamarins were fairly cooperative but still showed a healthy amount of self-interest: over repeated encounters with fellow monkeys, the typical tamarin pulled the lever about 40 percent of the time. They conditioned one tamarin to always pull the lever (thus creating an altruistic stooge) and another to never pull the lever (thus creating a selfish jerk).The stooge and the jerk were then sent to play the game with the other tamarins.If, for instance, the price of Jell-O fell (two cubes instead of one per token), would the capuchin buy more Jell-O and fewer grapes?The capuchins responded rationally to tests like this -- that is, they responded the way most readers of The Times would respond.But once they figured out that their partner was a pushover (like a parent who buys her kid a toy on every outing whether the kid is a saint or a devil), their rate of reciprocation dropped to 30 percent -- lower than the original average rate.

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