“Fairness to Me”

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       Many months ago, I wrote a blog on “Fairness”, noting that there are several different ways to define this term. My blog did not address how basic this concept really is.

      In her article “Monkeys Fuss Over Inequality”, in LiveScience.com (November 13, 2007), Jeanna Bryner discusses a study revealing that Capuchin monkeys, who are very much like us humans, will throw “. . . fits when their companions get better treats.” (Id.)

         In a study conducted by psychologist Sarah Brosnan at Georgia State University, Megan Van Wolkensten and Frans B.M. de Waal (both of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia), these researchers trained 13 Capuchin monkeys to play a game: “each of a pair of monkeys would hand a small granite rock to a human in exchange for a reward, either a cucumber slice or a grape.” (Id.) The grape was the more desirable treat.

      The researchers found that when both monkeys in the pair received cucumber slices, there was no problem. But when one of them received a grape while the other received a cucumber slice, the latter monkey let her displeasure be known. She would either drop or throw the cucumber slice on the ground or simply refuse to accept it and turn away.

      As  Capuchin monkeys are New World monkeys and more distantly related to humans than chimpanzees, these results show that the innate sense of fairness developed at a “. . .  different evolutionary spot on the tree of life” (Id.) than was previously thought:

           “The latest findings suggest that a sense of fairness is deeply ingrained in human evolutionary history rather than the idea that it’s a more cultural response, and thus, learned from other humans.” (Id.).


        Further, the researchers found that the Capuchin monkeys were concerned only with fairness to themselves, and not to others: “While humans regard fairness as equal treatment of themselves and others, the Capuchin monkeys only care about number one.” (Id.) Or, in modern terms, they follow the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) motto.

            In many mediations, I have heard a party exclaim that she wants what is “fair”. Oftentimes, the party has defined “fairness” in the same terms as the Capuchin monkeys: “what is fair to me?” Up until now, I assumed that this sense of fairness was a cultural trait and of recent evolutionary vintage. Now, I know better: putting No. 1 first in terms of fairness dates back thousand of years.

         So, the next time a party exclaims that she wants what is “fair”, I will smile to myself and put her plea into the proper perspective by acknowledging it has nothing to do with her individually, but with her ancestors. Her plea is not an individualistic selfish demand, but is primordial in nature, dating back to the Capuchin monkeys. In short, her selfishness is not cultural but genetic.

       . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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