One of the reasons that procedural fairness works as a strategy for judges, police officers, and others is that everyone has an innate understanding of what it is to be treated fairly. New research shows that a sense of fairness isn’t even uniquely human—chimpanzees have it too.
Researchers from Emory University and Georgia State University used a form of what is called an ultimatum game, which is often used by researchers in behavioral economics. The traditional version of the ultimatum game, used with adult humans, goes like this: Groups of subjects are broken into pairs. One person is given a sum of money and can give any part of that to the other person. If the other person accepts the offer, both parties keep what they have. But if the other person rejects the offer, neither one gets anything. There is only one chance, and the parties don’t communicate.
An economist might suggest that the first person can offer the other a pittance—the other person will be better off with something than nothing, and the party making the offer is better off with as much of the loot as he or she can keep. But in repeated tests, that’s not how real people play the game. The first party usually offers more than a minimal share of the total, and the second party usually rejects offers of very small shares. Why? Researchers have long argued that it’s because people value both fair treatment and others’ perceptions that they have been fair.
New research shows that similar results occur when an ultimatum game is played with children and with chimpanzees. The game rules were modified for use with these less-verbal groups. The researchers gave one individual the option to choose between two differently colored tokens. With the help of a partner, the tokens could be exchanged for rewards. One token favored only the individual chimp who made the choice between tokens; the other token provided equal rewards. Where the second chimp’s participation was required, the first chimp regularly chose the token that rewarded both chimps. Children made similar choices.
Some have suggested that this new finding with chimps isn’t surprising—after all, chimps, like humans, are used to cooperation and have a well-developed social structure. Either way, it’s worth remembering that fair play seems to be an innate human (and chimpanzee) trait. So it’s not surprising that whether a person feels treated fairly will have an effect.