Human sense of fairness evolved to favor long-term cooperation, primate study suggests

Sep 19, 2014

By Science Daily


The human response to unfairness evolved in order to support long-term cooperation, according to a research team from Georgia State University and Emory University.

Fairness is a social ideal that cannot be measured, so to understand the evolution of fairness in humans, Dr. Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State’s departments of Psychology and Philosophy, the Neuroscience Institute and the Language Research Center, has spent the last decade studying behavioral responses to equal versus unequal reward division in other primates.

In their paper, published in the journal Science, she and colleague Dr. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Psychology Department at Emory University, reviewed literature from their own research regarding responses to inequity in primates, as well as studies from other researchers. Although fairness is central to humans, it was unknown how this arose. Brosnan and de Waal hypothesize that it evolved, and therefore elements of it can be seen in other species.

“This sense of fairness is the basis of lots of things in human society, from wage discrimination to international politics,” Brosnan said. “What we’re interested in is why humans aren’t happy with what we have, even if it’s good enough, if someone else has more. What we hypothesize is that this matters because evolution is relative. If you are cooperating with someone who takes more of the benefits accrued, they will do better than you, at your expense. Therefore, we began to explore whether responses to inequity were common in other cooperative species.”


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6 comments on “Human sense of fairness evolved to favor long-term cooperation, primate study suggests

  • Forgive me, but this has been known ever since 1838 when, taking with him a banana and a mirror, Charlie visited Jenny, the Orangutan in London zoo, and she threw a wobbler, because she didn’t get what she wanted, and Darwin recognized the similarity between her behaviour and that of a human child.

    In other words, this has been known for one hundred and seventy five years! Or am I getting above myself?

    That’s not a rhetorical question, so anyone is at liberty to correct me if I’m wrong; could I stop them?

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  • Forgive the over simplification…

    When I was in my teens, I had my first “girlfriend.” That relationship lasted for maybe three weeks. During that time, I observed and learned many behaviors about the opposite sex in the context of that relationship type; expectations, appropriate behavior, so forth and so on. Imagine my surprise when the next girl I went out with was completely different and had her own set of traits!

    Point is that a single data set of observed traits in one individual does not provide the basis for making a broad assumption of the whole. It would be folly to assume that all Orangutans feel the same way about bananas just like it would be folly for me to assume that all women like listening to Depeche Mode just because the first one I ever dated did.

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  • THANK GOODNESS for Mr. Gordon (and Co.) !!!11!1one1! Yes, Mr Gordon, the very definition of getting above oneself is engaging in the practice of poo-pooing a decades worth of research and experiment with an anecdote. Everyone should stop research. Mr. Gordon knows everything about it – he once learned about Charlie and the Orangutan smh.

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  • Meanwhile the studies of primate cultures and learned behaviours continues!

    Chimp culture captured on camera

    Researchers have captured the spread of a new type of tool use in a wild population of chimps.

    They say this is the first clear evidence of wild chimpanzees developing a new culture.

    As the team filmed the animals at a field station in Uganda, they noticed that some of them started to make a new type of leaf sponge – something the animals use to drink.

    This new behaviour soon spread throughout the group.

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