Chimps Have a Sense of Fair Play; New Study Reveals

First Posted: Jan 15, 2013 09:29 AM EST

No one likes a cheater-not even chimpanzees. New findings from researchers at Emory University suggest that these primates have a sense of fairness, an attribute that was once thought to be uniquely human.

Collaborating with colleagues from the Georgia State University, researchers played the Ultimatum Game with chimps to test their reactions to reward distribution. This game involves two individuals where one proposes a reward division to the other; think of a child who wants to share his cookie with a friend. Humans typically share 50 percent of their reward with their partners (breaking the cookie in half to share it). The same response was seen among chimps.

In the actual experiment, researchers tested both chimpanzees and children to watch their responses. They gave one individual the option to choose between two differently colored tokens. With his partner's participation, the individual could exchange the token for rewards. While one token offered equal rewards to both players, the other token favored only the individual. Researchers found that both the children and chimps chose the token that divided rewards equally if partner participation was required.

Before this study, most researchers assumed that this game could not be played among animals, or that the animal would always choose the most selfish option. The fact that chimpanzees showed that they were willing to share shows that the animals are used to cooperation-unsurprising considering their high levels of social structure in the wild.

The findings are available in an early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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