by Ashley Mooney

Have you ever thought of advertising to a monkey?

Junior Yavuz Acikalin, an economics and neuroscience double major, is doing an independent research project with the Platt Lab that deals with just that—monkey advertising. Acikalin’s project deals with whether or not one can influence primate reward preferences by branding rewards. Branding involves using associations between brand logos and images of female monkey perinea—“sexy images” for monkeys in his words—and high status male faces.

“Finding similarities between how mainstream methods of marketing affect humans and monkeys can lead to a better understanding of the evolutionary factors that affect consumer behavior,” he said. “Experiments on monkeys can help us better understand the irrationalities that happen in the markets, and more importantly, the brain mechanisms that underlie the effects of advertising on consumer behavior.”

The lab, run by Michael Platt, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, studies how the brain decides between different actions. A main focus of the lab is on value-based decision making, and the brain mechanisms responsible for these processes—in summary, neuroeconomics, Acikalin said.

His daily duties include writing Matlab code for the touch-screen interface that the monkeys use, he said. He also writes code for data analysis and runs the experiments.

Acikalin noted that he loves animals and cannot live without having multiple pets at home, making his time with the monkeys rewarding. His research, however, does come with its downsides.

“My least favorite part is dealing with all the biohazard on a daily basis—or more precisely, monkey poop,” he said.