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Frans de Waal on the human primate: Fair is fair

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s Note: This post is the first in a four-part series of essays for Scientific American by primatologist Frans de Waal on human nature, based on his ongoing research. De Waal and other researchers appear in a series of Department of Expansion videos focusing on the same topic.

How often do we see rich people march in the street shouting that they’re earning too much? Or stockbrokers complaining about the "onus of the bonus"? Protesters typically are blue-collar workers yelling that their jobs shouldn’t go overseas or that they should earn more. A more exotic example was the 2008 march through the capital of Swaziland by poor women who felt that the king’s wives had overstepped their privileges by chartering an airplane for a shopping spree in Europe.

Fairness is viewed differently by the haves and have-nots. The underlying emotions and desires aren’t half as lofty as the ideal itself. The most recognizable emotion is resentment. Look at how children react to the slightest discrepancy in the size of their pizza slice compared with their siblings’. They shout, "That’s not fair!" but never in a way transcending their own desires.

An experiment with capuchin monkeys by Sarah Brosnan, of Georgia State University’s CEBUS Lab, and myself illuminated this emotional basis. These monkeys will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers, and go on strike. A perfectly fine vegetable has become unpalatable! Not all economists, philosophers and anthropologists were happy with our interpretation, because they traditionally consider the "sense of fairness" uniquely human. But by now there are many other experiments, even on dogs, that confirm our initial findings.

Obviously, things get extremely political if one claims that a desire for income equality has evolutionary backing, but it is hard to deny that the collapse of the world economy in 2008 was partly due to a massive misjudgment of human nature. We’re considerably less selfish and more social than advertised.


Frans de Waal, PhD, is a Dutch-American primatologist known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982) and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009). He teaches at Emory University in Atlanta where he directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Video credit: Department of Expansion

Comments 19 Comments

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  1. 1. Asterix13 12:00 am 11/30/1999

    notsofast there,
    That was good and blows the Dutch (knows it all) (and I’m Dutch) prof’s simple reasoning capability right out of the water. I’ll give you a Grape for the effort, very good responds. I know animals don’t put any thought, or emotion in observing their or others emotions other then self interest. And that is a commen future, we share with the Monkeys and other animals. Even when we preach the faith, or create new sharity foundations among celebraties and the rest of us, there is self interest to be detected, Amen

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 12:41 pm 07/20/2010

    I’m confounded by the author’s closing remark:
    "…it is hard to deny that the collapse of the world economy in 2008 was partly due to a massive misjudgment of human nature. We’re considerably less selfish and more social than advertised."

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t see or hear any foundation for that conclusion. If I recall, the greed of mortgage companies produce the collapse of the housing market, resulting in the government bailout of Wall Street firms who then paid outrageous bonuses to the top decision makers of failed companies using taxpayers’ funds. This is a little more than a misperception by us have-nots!

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  3. 3. SpoonmanWoS 3:02 pm 07/20/2010

    You are confused, jtdwyer. Everyone knows the economic collapse was caused by people getting mortgages that were beyond their means. The bankers ,who are supposed to know how much a person can afford to borrow and then limit the borrowed amount, that talked them into these mortgages by telling them the housing market is on a constant "up" and then selling these destined to fail mortgages as A1 investments (often rating the securities themselves like AIG did) to other companies…well, they have no part in the blame. The fault entirely lies with the great unwashed who thought they were, for once, getting a good deal on a mortgage. They really should’ve known better….

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  4. 4. Andira 3:33 pm 07/20/2010

    You are equally confused. Everyone believed that they could get a good deal from an artifically stimulated market. Or did the banks really lend out money due to altruism? Sorry, unconvinced I am.

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  5. 5. Andira 3:35 pm 07/20/2010

    I should add that the fact that someone is a fine expert on primatology does not automatically make him an expert on all human affairs. The main interest of this little essay lies in that animal examples show that we should not underestimate them the way we have traditionally done.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 4:09 pm 07/20/2010

    Okay, Frans de Waal, PhD, I’ll read the rest of your reports. I thought this was going to be another "We are mirror images of monkeys" report. I am so sick and tired of hearing these ‘wanta-be’ American scientists run a couple of experiments on monkeys or rats and then claim that we, humans, will perform, or act, exactly like them. So tell me, my good ol’buddy Frans, what am I, -a have or have not?-

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  7. 7. hotblack 4:28 pm 07/20/2010

    James Davis. More monkey-like than most.

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  8. 8. ENVME 5:25 pm 07/20/2010

    Yes, I’ve noticed this my my dogs. I cannot give one a jerky stick and the other a biscuit. Just the same, I would not equate this to our complex market system. I simply think that w/o active regulation, our "free" market system ends up in the hands of psychopaths.

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  9. 9. NotSoFastThere 5:45 pm 07/20/2010

    Certainly mammals (I know them better than, say, birds) all get cranky when they know there’s something better to be had than what they’re currently enjoying. I don’t attribute this to some prevailing sense of "fairness," though. It’s simple greed, as well-honed by natural selection. Animals that defend more space, protect their access to more food/water, pursue the best mate, and have the best place to sleep – they tend to do better, and increase their chances of reproducing and raising their young.

    A monkey that looks disgusted with one hand-out when there’s a tastier hand-out available isn’t expressing some deep-down, natural notion of "fairness," or even resentment. It’s just frustration at not having something tastier, even though it’s known to be available. The real test would be weather or not de Waal’s observed fairness equity urges are mirrored by equity in each primate’s willingness to work for what they want. My observation is that within otherwise similar groups of mammals, some are (by nature and/or nurture) far more willing to work, take risks, endure discomfort, or show patience than are some others.

    That willingness to go the extra mile tends to define pack dynamics. Resentment or no … the less-than-alpha mammals seem to understand that they’re not going to get the same goods, relationships, or position until they do (or surpass) what the alpha does – including taking the risks and sometimes suffering more for them.

    The sense of entitlement that is increasingly referred to as "fairness" is probably peculiar to humans raised in cultures where more and more of them are insulated from seeing the causal relationships between work, risk-taking, and reward. No wonder that people anthropomorphize the animals they’re observing, and inject that same muddled framework into the interpretations of their experimental results.

    Want to see how resentful primates are over who gets cucumbers vs. who gets grapes? Present the pack of primates with genuine adversity (say, territorial threats from other packs or predation) and THEN watch how it plays out between the pack members. Alpha pack members either defend the pack (and are not challenged for their rewards), or they are cast down.

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  10. 10. dewaal 7:47 pm 07/20/2010

    We know about this problem (of primates possibly just wanting what better food is available) hence conducted a new series of tests. We did the equity test (in which both monkeys get cucumber) but before each trial we would wave grapes in front of them, so it was clear better rewards were available. It didn’t change a thing! They happily performed the task.

    We conclude that the problem is not reward availability but really whether the *other* monkey gets the grapes. It’s not just greed, but a perception of inequity. Many more such tests have been done in the meantime, and the general conclusion is that monkeys (and also apes and dogs) are sensitive to the reward distribution.

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  11. 11. auryaun 11:45 pm 07/20/2010

    Yes, I quite agree and found myself similarly puzzled by that particular remark, although I liked the insight of the rest of the article.

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  12. 12. auryaun 11:47 pm 07/20/2010

    I was similarly puzzled by the author’s closing comment regarding human nature, as it was completely out of step with the rest of the article, and pointed to no substantiating evidence.

    All in all, I enjoyed the rest of the insights ad information posed.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 12:48 am 07/21/2010

    dewaal – I’m curious as to whether you monkeys were kept in isolated cages when not performing your tests, or whether they were kept an an environment allowing interaction and societal development? I suspect your results would vary considerably, making them much more difficult to assess, but more accurately representing natural behavioral characteristics.

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 1:28 am 07/21/2010

    dewaal – I’m sorry and quite embarrassed – I meant to say:
    "I’m curious as to whether your monkeys…"

    Nothing personal in any way intended, I assure you. I also have nothing against monkeys (except that they’re noisy and irritating, dirty and well, never mind).

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  15. 15. JamesDavis 8:45 am 07/21/2010

    Forget it ‘jtdwyer’, you are not going to apologize your way out of that one. Like Mr. Clemins (author and creator of Tom Sawyer) said, "needless, my friend, the damage is done."

    That was a good question you asked though and it would have an impact of the findings. I would like Dr. de Waal to answer that question, "Did you monkeys stay in cages while you did experiments on the other monkeys?"

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  16. 16. johnmcragin 10:04 am 07/21/2010

    johnmcragin, joplinmo 7/21/10

    We are what we are — animals. So, our dominion over animals tends to make them what we are; if dominion is not exercised, then neutral obsrvation would say, "Animals are only animals … naturally."

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  17. 17. Andira 4:28 pm 07/21/2010

    Isn’t ‘a perception of inequity’ merely a very polite rephrasing of envy? What is the difference? I agree that studies like these are interesting, nevertheless the idea of fairness is a richer one than envy. It presupposes a society with some form of distribution or allotment policies that follow rules. Fairness = justice in the classical sense, and justice according to the greek philosophers involved balance. The notion that someone else should not get a better deal than ‘me’ is more primitive than that, although it may represent an aspect of the behavioral situation among humans also. It may, in fact, that which we prefer to regard as fairness, although it is not. Severe semantical problems loom here. In general, I guess, we love fairness (balance) when it benefits us.

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  18. 18. chills1953 2:32 pm 07/24/2010

    I think I might have a bit of understanding on what Dr. de Waal may have meant with his comment "We’re considerably less selfish and more social than advertised."

    I believe he was trying to say that humans are tired of there being such disparate rewards in light of the recent changes in the world economy. Before we were relatively complacent about the multi-million dollar bonuses going to CEO’s. Now in these times of trouble, we are less tolerable of that because there are so many of us that are going without even the basics to live. We are social in that we care about those of us who are unable to find a job and live a simple secure life.

    It is becoming more important that we ALL are able to support ourselves and seeing some being over-rewarded when others are so desperately in need is what makes us less selfish and more social.

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  19. 19. Slade 4:09 am 09/14/2010

    Seriously who does this guy think he is by using his primatology
    expertise to try and solve human social problems. Especially one that involves a sense of economic fairness and equality. He talks about how blue collar workers complain about their situation out of resentment. Well thats easy for him to say when he is one of the ones on the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum. After all he is "Frans de Waal, PhD, a Dutch-American primatologist known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982) and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009). He teaches at Emory University in Atlanta where he directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences."
    It doesn’t sound like he is doing too bad for himself. And if he is looking at the situation from outside how can he claim to know what it feels like to be one of the poor fellas.

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