Chimps can play fair (even if humans can’t)

My parents never bought me a videogame console when I was a kid. In fact, you can probably take a therapist’s eye to the whole Kill Screen thing as some sort of delayed rebellion against parental wisdom. But in a recent conversation with my father, my parents didn’t withhold the NES or Genesis from me because of some over-arching moral panic or fear that my brain would rot. It was because I couldn’t share. 

That’s the whole of it. They took me to Chicago. My family friends had a Nintendo. We played Contra. I totally flipped out when it was my turn. Frankly, it was pretty easy decision on my part.

So to my chagrin, new research from Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Georgia State University indicates that what I couldn’t do, chimps apparently can. Awesome.

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Researchers played what’s called “the ultimatum game” with chimpanzees to find out if chimps how they would react to how rewards are divvied up after cooperating to get them. Chimpanzees, like people (but apparently unlike me) demonstration selflessness more often when they had to cooperate to get food.

Here’s how “the ultimatum game” works. Normally, people are used as subjects and one person is given money to be dividing in any way they see fit to a second person sequestered in a separate room. Here’s the rub. If person #2 takes the offer, everyone wins. They both get money. But if he or she rejects the offer, neither gets to keep the cash. So the idea is that person #1 shouldn’t try to bilk person #2, or they both lose. If you’re too greedy, you risk losing everything.

The team used food (or, rather, food tokens as a proxy) for the chimps and the results were surprising. TIME reports:

“The chimpanzees were clearly paying attention to what their partners’ outcomes were and adjusting their behavior depending on whether or not their partner could affect the outcome,” says Sarah Brosnan, the study’s senior author. “If their partner couldn’t do anything, they went ahead and took the option that gave them the most rewards. But if their partner had the potential to change the outcome, then they actually switched their behavior.”

The experiment was repeated with children and surprise surprise, the same results. The implications are big as it’s not quite understood how we humans devleloped our own sense of fairness in a dog-eat-dog world. “It really opens the door to figuring out where in our evolutionary history and what sort of adaptive pressures led to this human sense of fairness,” one of the researchers said. 

But wait! I’m telling you if you gave those chimps Contra, it’d be a totally different story.