Even Monkeys Get It–Now Why Doesn’t My Boss?

One of the most fascinating workplace-related studies to cross our desk recently came to us courtesy of Nature Magazine. Researchers have learned that monkeys appear to have an innate sense of fairness, and will express their displeasure when failing to receive “equal pay for equal work.” Now that we know that primates have natural expectations to be treated fairly for what they do, how do workers get the primates who write our paychecks to honor those expectations?

Researchers Sarah Brosnan and Frans B.M. de Waal at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center studied brown capuchin monkeys to learn that even nonhuman primates “respond negatively to unequal reward distribution.” (See Emory Press Release.) The capuchins were selected because they often cooperate to share food with one another. (See Salt Lake Tribune article.)

The researchers conducted four tests, each including two sessions of 25 trials, on pairs of female capuchins. (Females were selected because scientists have noted that “previous work had shown males to be less attuned to inequality than females.” See Scientific American article. Very interesting stuff here.) First, as a reward for exchanging token, they gave some monkeys cucumbers, considered a lower-value rewards of cucumbers. Then they measured the responses of the capuchin receiving cucumbers when their partners, in exchange for exerting varying levels of work, were given grapes, a higher-value reward. Brosnan noted, “We showed the subjects compared their rewards with those of their partners and refused to accept a lower-value reward if their partners received a higher-value reward. This effect is amplified when the partner does not have to work for the reward.”

When both animals in the pair received cucumbers in exchange for tokens (the equity test), there was a 95 percent completed exchange rate with the capuchin subjects. This exchange rate fell to 60 percent in the inequity test, in which the animals observed their partners receiving grapes for completing the same amount of work. Researchers found only 20 percent of animals cooperated with exchanges during the effort-control test, when partners received the higher-value reward for less work. Finally, a 55 percent exchange rate was recorded for the cucumbers in the food-control test. (See Emory Press Release.) The rejection took different forms in the inequality and effort-control tests: sometimes the slighted animals refused to give up their tokens; on other occasions they took the cucumber but refused to eat it or tossed it out of the cage entirely. While it is impossible to subjectively determine or categorize the animals’ emotional states, Brosnan observed “[t]hey were not happy with me,” when asked about the monkeys which were asked to accept lesser rewards than their partners. (See Salt Lake Tribune article.) The researchers plan to continue similar research with chimpanzees to determine whether chimps behave similarly to capuchins and humans.

As fascinating as this study is, what does it tell us? Adam Cohen of the New York Times offered this observation in What the Monkeys Can Teach Humans About Making America Fairer:

[I]n a week when fairness was so evidently on the ropes — from the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, which poor nations walked out of in frustration, to the latest issue of Forbes, reporting that the richest 400 Americans are worth $955 billion — the capuchin monkeys offered a glimmer of hope from the primate gene pool.

The study’s implication that we are, to some extent, hard-wired for fairness speaks with special force to the legal system. American law has undergone a transformation in recent years, led by conservative Supreme Court justices and scholars, away from a focus on broad principles of fairness and toward a willingness to subject people to treatment that might be unjust, on the grounds that it is legal. The monkey study suggests, however, that fairness might be more than a currently unfashionable legal concept. It may be integral to who we are.

The article concludes,

[T]he capuchin monkey study suggests that fairness is at least part of the mix of traits that go with being human — and that over time, higher notions of justice that look beyond mechanical application of rigid rules may have a fighting chance.

We at Workplace Fairness hope to unite all of us in this effort, true to our innate human values, to bring fairness to the workplace and to preserve it as a desired ideal. Whether it’s cucumbers and grapes or salaries and the corner office, we intuitively know that treating workers fairly and rewarding them according to their effort is the right thing to do.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.