The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Is a sense of fairness and a desire for equal pay hardwired?

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2009 at 10:34 am

There’s an interesting article in Salon this morning called Free the Chimps! by David Stipp. The part that pertains to the issues that concern The Frances Perkins Center is this:

In a provocative 2003 study titled “Monkeys reject unequal pay,” [Emory University primatologist Frans] de Waal and a colleague showed that nonhuman primates have a sense of fair play, and that violating it makes them uncooperative. The researchers taught capuchin monkeys to exchange small pebbles for pieces of cucumber. Working with pairs of female monkeys, the scientists sometimes gave one of the animals a grape, which are much yummier to capuchins than cucumbers, in the pebble-trading game. When the other monkey saw she was getting a raw deal for her pebble — the usual cucumber — she went on strike, and sometimes even threw her cucumber piece on the floor.

De Waal subsequently showed that chimps similarly reject unequal pay, and in another follow-up study demonstrated that the greater the effort that monkeys must expend to get food rewards, the more negatively they react when the rewards are unequal. De Waal and other scientists have also shown that when primates must cooperate to get food, as they do when hunting in groups, greater sharing of the rewards increases cooperation, which boosts the chance of success and the gains for all the members of the group. Again, de Waal is careful not to push his data too hard — primates have a prototypical sense of fairness and enlightened self-interest, he has noted, not the full human thing.

Here’s the part that pertains to us humans:monkeybusiness

Still, the rise of the obscenely overpaid executive has given us our own version of de Waal’s socially disruptive game, undermining the cohesiveness that has always been America’s great strength during crises. President Obama’s recent blunt words about the trend appeal strongly to our inner primates, and his effort to stem the socially toxic trend toward economic inequality initiated during the Reagan administration represents a vitally important part of his agenda…

So while it’s important that we forgo the simple-minded anthropomorphism that inspires keeping primates as pets, let’s not get unreal about it — they have more to say to us than many people would like to admit. And the next time you see a cartoon trying to demean someone by comparing him to a chimp, consider this: If more of our own alpha males were as attuned as their primate counterparts to “the basic solidarity that makes life bearable,” as de Waal puts it, we might pull together and get out of the current mess a lot faster than we otherwise would.

Maybe we should all send bananas to those alpha male bankers who still don’t seem to get it. Or would they prefer grapes?

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