Income Inequality in Action, Monkey-Style

Legendary primatologist Frans de Waal presents a video in which two capuchin monkeys are given unequal pay for equal work. One of them gets paid in cucumbers, the other in grapes. Can you guess which one is happier?

It is amazing to see how the principles of behavioral economics spill so easily into the animal kingdom. (You may also wish to consider Keith Chen‘s economic research with capuchins.)

So the next time you feel you’re being unfairly compensated, or feel the broader sting of income inequality, you can say to your friends, “I feel just like a monkey who’s been given a cucumber while the monkey next door got a grape,” and thanks to Frans de Waal they will know what you are talking about.

(HT: V. Brenner)

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. frankenduf says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 19
    • Horde56 says:

      I dunno, the monkey on the right doesn’t seem all that interested in instantiating social justice.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0
  2. cornel says:

    There you have it… What better way to explain society and revolution than this.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  3. James says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 15
  4. Jim says:

    It would be also fascinating to have the monkeys do unequal tasks then see if they still want an equal treat. Who wants to bet they do?

    Since we are using this one example to make points about income inequality, maybe we could make some points about people who believe redistribution of wealth.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 5
    • BC says:

      That was my thought too. To make relevant to today’s discussion of income inequality, we would have to first give the monkeys unequal rewards for unequal tasks to identify which tasks get done only when the reward is a grape (“grape-only” tasks), not a cucumber. Then, we would give the monkeys grapes for all tasks and observe whether the monkeys would still perform the grape-only tasks or whether they would instead substitute the previous cucumber-tasks to get grapes. Finally, to make really relevant to current discussions, we should observe what happens if we give a grape to the *other* monkey every time the first monkey performs a grape-only task. That would be the Occupy Wall Street test.

      Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4
    • Anthony says:

      And who is going to decide which task is of more value and which task is of less value? But, more importantly, how is this decision going to be made?

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • Anthony says:

        I should’ve read the comment above, although that method of determining which task is of more value wouldn’t necessarily be too relevant to the real world, as it seems we’re lacking an objective standard or method in the real world of determining which tasks are of a higher or lesser value.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. JAM says:

    You have to wonder sometimes…

    I think we’ve all been there…

    Sitting in your cubicle, watching the denizen of another nearby cubicle garner the sweet admiration and esteem of the overseers for seemingly arbitrary reasons while your contributions garner stony anonymity…

    You have to wonder…

    Am I one of the lab monkeys of some grand sociology experiment?

    You really have to wonder…


    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0
  6. Dr. Constantinos Charalambous says:

    here is my input on this article. I wrote a post using the dictator and the ultimatum game to describe the concept of fairness.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. tmeier says:

    Certainly it sometimes happens that people get different rewards for the same work but much, much more often the work is only similar and the degree of similarity and the appropriateness of reward is subjective. This is the fundamental problem with all kinds of justice. How and by whom what is just is determined is the question and at one time or another everything humankind could think of has been tried and each time someone felt they weren’t getting a fair deal.

    What i find most amusing is the same people who cry out for justice when they feel they got the cucumber aren’t over eager to share the grapes that come their way. When I see an American crying out for justice who lives with the material goods and income of the average person on the planet I’ll listen, until then they are just people who want to level those above them down without leveling those below them up.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2
    • Anthony says:

      “…at one time or another everything humankind could think of has been tried…”

      I’d have to disagree with you on this one. For instance, I’ve got tons of ideas that haven’t been tried; not only that, but, I’ve never ever been consulted by any politician whatsoever, not even once, nor has anybody else that I know been consulted, about any one thing – well, that’s not entirely true, they spend millions of dollars campaigning for my vote, my voluntary consent to their absolute, authoritarian madness, which is simply a waste of anybody’s precious, invaluable time; one of the few commodities still worth something nowadays.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • tmeier says:

        You have new ideas for how to determine what is fair which you believe will leave no one thinking they got the short end of the stick? Please give an example, I’m interested to hear one.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Daniel Chamudot says:

    This test doesn’t conclusively show that the capuchins are bothered by inequality per se.

    One could argue that the first capuchin is just irritated because as much as he tries, he can’t seem to get a grape. Before the grape was offered to the second monkey, he didn’t know the grape option was even available.

    It’s NOT like the wall street protests because the first capuchin is not taking out his frustration on the second one (i.e the 99% blaming the 1%), but rather on the tester (aka the “financial system”).

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 3
    • Mema says:

      I agree that this is not a test of preferences for fairness. I would like to see a reaction in this case: the two individuals BOTH get cucumber after they have been given grapes at last once. That would show if they react because they just like grapes better than cucumber, rather than because the other one got grapes.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0