The Ultimatum Game: What Primates Can Teach Us About Inequality

The ultimatum game is the ultimate test of fairness, and chimpanzees passed the test by going for the fair options.  

I’m interested in our current economic situation of inequity in society.  There’s a growing inequity and we actually do experiments on equity in chimpanzees and monkeys.  One of our typical experiments which has become very popular is we put two monkeys side by side.  If they both work on the same task and they both get cucumber slices, they’re very happy with that situation.  If one of them gets grapes and the other one gets cucumber, the one who gets cucumber gets very upset and starts to throw the food out of the cage and doesn’t want to do the task anymore.


And so primates, we now know, get very upset by inequalities like this.  And chimpanzees go even further.  With chimpanzees, the one who gets the grape may refuse the grape until the other one also gets a grape.  So they have a sense of fairness that even goes into the other direction where it benefits.  Well, it’s not a benefit for me but I want to have an equal situation between the two of us.  We recently played the ultimatum game with chimpanzees which is the ultimate test of the human sense of fairness and the chimpanzees passed the test in that particular game. They chose for the fair options.  

And so inequity is problematic.  It is part of our economy to create inequalities but I think just like the primates we have strong aversive reactions to it.  And so it puts the stress on our social system, I think, to create inequalities.  And we study this in the primates.  People study it now in children and the sort of general consensus that we have is that we’re not particularly happy with unequal distributions.  That doesn’t mean that to some degree inequalities are not needed in the economy.  I think some level of inequality is always needed because you want to have incentives for certain people to do certain things.  But if it gets too big I think it damages the social relationships.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

26 ultra-rich people own as much as the world's 3.8 billion poorest

The Oxfam report prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency."

Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new report by Oxfam argues that wealth inequality is causing poverty and misery around the world.
  • In the last year, the world's billionaires saw their wealth increase by 12%, while the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet lost 11% of their wealth.
  • The report prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency." We explain what Steven Pinker's got to do with it.
Keep reading Show less

People who constantly complain are harmful to your health

Moans, groans, and gripes release stress hormones in the brain.

Photo credit: Getty Images / Stringer
popular

Could you give up complaining for a whole month? That's the crux of this interesting piece by Jessica Hullinger over at Fast Company. Hullinger explores the reasons why humans are so predisposed to griping and why, despite these predispositions, we should all try to complain less. As for no complaining for a month, that was the goal for people enrolled in the Complaint Restraint project.

Participants sought to go the entirety of February without so much as a moan, groan, or bellyache.

Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
  • Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
  • But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
Keep reading Show less