[T]ogether with Sarah Brosnan, we did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.(Hmmm, I cannot resist observing that it would be quite interesting to see what would happen in my department if I started withholding cooperation until the reward division improves?!? It seems woefully impractical as well as temperamentally implausible, but it is a fine notion!)
If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.
However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.
This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”
I actually don’t think the response is irrational at all, but related to the fact that in a cooperative system, one needs to watch what kind of investment one makes and what one gets in return. If your partners always ends up getting a greater share, this means that you’re being taken advantage of. So, the rational thing to do is withhold cooperation until the reward division improves.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
The aquatic ape?
Frans de Waal answers the questions of Freakonomics readers: