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)

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  1. Nate Mathan says:

    I loved the video and sent it to friends.

    A minor correction – your introduction states: “It is amazing to see how the principles of behavioral economics spill so easily into the animal kingdom.”
    er… humans ARE part of the animal kingdom.

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  2. Horde56 says:

    Notice that the monkey getting the greater reward isn’t offering to share. It seems that envy and selfishness are both endemic to primate nature.

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    • Daniel Chamudot says:

      Not necessarily. De Waal repeated the experiment in chimpanzees and found that the second chimpanzee refused the grape reward after seeing the unfair treatment towards the first chimpanzee.

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  3. Joe says:

    “It is amazing to see how the principles of behavioral economics spill so easily into the animal kingdom”

    I guess this depends which side you’re coming from (human or animal). It’s not the least bit surprising to animal behaviorists to see how easily the two worlds overlap.

    Humans are, after all, members of the animal kingdom.

    Animal behavior is full of topics where an economist would feel right at home. Start with something like food sharing in Vampire Bats.

    It’s interesting – I promise. You’ll also find yourself understanding more about why your crazy Aunt Helga behaves the way she does.

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  4. Julien Couvreur says:

    This is funny and cute.

    But if? humans were caged and enslaved to their “employers” then I could understand the parallel. The closest example is that of kids (since they are not in a voluntary relationship with their parents).

    In contrast, most adults know what salary they will receive *before* they do the job.

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  5. Ian M says:

    The monkey on the right had 4 years of formal training as a rock giver at a very prestigious school. He studied rock giving theory. He completed a thesis on rock giving. He even took a course in rock giving ethics and another course in philosophy so he was a more well rounded monkey.
    The monkey on the left has far more experience as a rock giver as he has been a 40hr/wk rock giver for the last 10 years. No matter though as he has never been to rock giving school. He doesn’t have much chance at a life of grapes. His Dad was a happy cucumber eater who married a zucchini eater and raised 4 monkeys. Maybe he should ignore the grape eaters and just try to be happy.

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  6. TexCIS says:

    A better test would be to give one monkey 3 grapes and the other monkey 5 grapes. You’re supposed to be testing an inequal amount of rewards . . . not totally different rewards. That’s like paying one employee with dollars and the other employee with an equal dollar amount of discount coupons.

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