In a study done by the Max Planck Institute, chimps were tested with the ultimatum game. In the human case, a player called the proposer is given a sum of money N. He must then offer some amount between 0 and N to another player, the responder. If the responder accepts the offer, they both keep the amount of money in the trade. If the responder declines the offer, both walk away with nothing. Predictably, humans usually make offers around 50%.
In the case of chimps, raisins were used. They were presented with trays that the proposer can only pull out so far. The responder can then pull the tray out the rest of the way if he accepts. The results? Big surprise here folks — wait for it — the chimp always accepted unless the offer was zero. Why? The chimp wanted some raisins. So the conclusion the researchers drew was that chimps don’t have a concept of fair play. The conclusion I think we should draw from this is that chimps aren’t vindictive bastards like humans. Oh, also that chimps want raisins and don’t have a damn clue what this game was about. Of course the chimp always pulled out the tray when there was something in it. He wanted the raisins and had no concept of what was going on. No raisins to pull out? No reason to try to pull it out. I think this says more about the cause and effect inference capability of chimps relating to actions that benefit other individuals than it does about notions of fair play.
Now maybe if the chimp looked down at the zero offer, rejected, and then shot the other chimp the finger, that would be another matter. I’m hoping there is a better explanation for why we should infer the fair play conclusion, and if so, please post a comment. Otherwise, this represents who knows how much wasted money. (And yes, I know the “wasted money” argument doesn’t hold water. If the result had been different, this would have been on the front page of the NY Times.)