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60-Second Science

Monkeys Hate Others' Bonuses, Too

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago on February 16th, primatologist Frans de Waal noted that the public's distaste for Wall Street bonuses has its counterpart, and perhaps roots, in other animals' perceptions of inequity. Steve Mirsky reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Even monkeys know when they’re getting a bad deal, said primatologist Frans de Waal at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago on February 16th: “We found that our monkeys were sensitive to the distribution of rewards.”

Give two side-by-side monkeys a piece of cucumber for performing a simple task and there’s no problem. But if one sees his neighbor get a more desirable grape—“now grapes are far better than cucumber and the monkeys know that”—for doing the same thing, “they become agitated. They don’t like this experiment anymore, even though they get exactly the same food as before. But the partner is now getting grapes. And if you give the partner a grape without any task, then they really don’t like it anymore. So this is, I usually call it an egocentric sense of fairness, it’s like resentment or envy. It’s very similar actually to the response that we have currently to Wall Street bonuses. I always say we live in Cucumberland and they live in Grapeland, basically.”

—Steve Mirsky 

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