Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


Ape-onomics: Chimps in the Ultimatum Game and Rationality in the Wild

I recently discussed the experimental study of the Ultimatum Game, and showed that it has been studied in economics, psychology, anthropology, psychophysics and genetics. Now primatologists/evolutionary anthropologists Keith Jensen, Josep Call and Michael Tomasello (the same team that showed that chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful see 2007a) had chimpanzees playing the Ultimatum, or more precisely, a mini-ultimatum, where proposers can make only two offers, for instance a fair vs. unfair one, or fair vs. an hyperfair, etc. Chimps had to split grapes. The possibilities were (in x/y pairs, x is the proposer, y, the responder)
  • 8/2 versus 5/5
  • 8/2 versus 2/8
  • 8/2 versus 8/2 (no choice)
  • 8/2 versus 10/0

The experimenters used the following device:

Fig. 1. (from Jensen et al, 2007b) Illustration of the testing environment. The proposer, who makes the first choice, sits to the responder's left. The apparatus, which has two sliding trays connected by a single rope, is outside of the cages. (A) By first sliding a Plexiglas panel (not shown) to access one rope end and by then pulling it, the proposer draws one of the baited trays halfway toward the two subjects. (B) The responder can then pull the attached rod, now within reach, to bring the proposed food tray to the cage mesh so that (C) both subjects can eat from their respective food dishes (clearly separated by a translucent divider)

Results indicate the chimps behave like Homo Economicus:
responders did not reject unfair offers when the proposer had the option of making a fair offer; they accepted almost all nonzero offers; and they reliably rejected only offers of zero (Jensen et al.)

As the authors conclude, "one of humans' closest living relatives behaves according to traditional economic models of self-interest, unlike humans, and t(...) does not share the human sensitivity to fairness."

So Homo Economicus would be a better picture of nature, red in tooth and claw? Yes and no. In another recent paper, Brosnan et al. studied the endowment effect in chimpanzees. The endowment effect is a bias that make us placing a higher value on objects we own relative to objects we do not. Well, chimps do that too. While they usually are indifferent between peanut butter and juice, once they "were given or ‘endowed’ with the peanut butter, almost 80 percent of them chose to keep the peanut butter, rather than exchange it for a juice bar" (from Vanderbilt news). They do not, however, have loss-aversion for non-food goods (rubber-bone dog chew toy and a knotted-rope dog toy). Another related study (Chen et al, 2006) also indicates that capuchin monkeys exhibit loss-aversion.

So there seems to be an incoherence here: chimps are both economically and non-economically rational. But this is only, as the positivists used to say, a pseudo-problem: they tend to comply with standard or 'selfish' economics in social context, but not in individual context. The difference between us and them is truly that we are, by nature, political animals. Our social rationality requires reciprocity, negotiation, exchange, communication, fairness, cooperation, morality, etc., not plain selfishness. Chimps do cooperate and exhibit a slight taste for fairness (see section 1 of this post), but not in human proportions.

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