Finding a Monkey's Sense of Fairness

This still from an NSF Science Nation episode "Monkey Business" shows part of a cooperation experiment, two capuchin monkeys, housed in the testing chamber on the left, choose one of two tokens, one of which represents cooperation and one of which represents non-cooperation. (Image credit: NSF)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Do non-human primates like chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys respond to inequity or unfairness the way humans do? Georgia State psychologist and neuroscientist, Sarah Brosnan is interested in finding out. Brosnan studies the behavior of primates to better understand how they make decisions and cooperate with one another.

According to the idea of survival of the fittest, a person or primate agreeing to a decision that would result in an inequitable outcome would not seem to make sense. You would think primates would act in ways that only benefit themselves. So why do monkeys and humans appear to cooperate with each other even if the outcome may favor one over the other? Bronson’s work may help provide the answers. Her research addresses questions as small as why your piece of candy does not seem as great once you see your friend with an ice cream cone, to how we make decisions about healthcare coverage.

Human and primate cooperation is a hot topic. Learn more about bonobos and chimpanzee behavior in a feature story on similar research here and the lecture here, and check out Sarah Brosnan in the Science Nation episode, “Monkey Business” on the NSF website. Read how she answered the Science Lives 10 Questions below:

Name: Sarah F. Brosnan Age: 34 Institution: Georgia State University Field of Study: Evolution of Decision-Making

1. What inspired you to choose this field of study? I am fascinated with how individuals make decisions. Decisions are affected by many things, but one aspect that particularly interests me is how decisions vary depending upon the social environment; that is, who else is around and what they are doing. In the context of cooperation, this means deciding things such as who to cooperate with and whether to continue cooperating, particularly if you and your partner don’t get the same outcome. Inequity ends up being quite a conundrum; although judging whether you got the same outcome as someone else can help you figure out whether to keep interacting, since few interactions result in equity, there must be a number of processes going on which allow individuals to balance the impulse to quit when they get less in a single interaction with the longer-term gain. Understanding this will help us better understand situations in which cooperation works and, perhaps more importantly, those in which it breaks down.

2. What is the best piece of advice you ever received? An undergraduate adviser once told me that the best questions to study were those that interested me the most. I think that this advice is applicable beyond choosing research questions!

3. What was your first scientific experiment as a child? My parents report that by the age of 5, I spent many happy hours trying to figure out what the various insects and lizards that I found in our yard would eat. These experiments were rarely successful but, thanks to their intervention, were not terminal. My first formal experiment was my middle school science fair project, investigating how water quality of a local river changed depending upon the degree of development present on the banks (which ranged from state parks to fairly urban). That project won honorable mention at the state science fair, and as my favorite assignment of the year, more or less determined my future career path.

4. What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? I really like the process of science. I particularly enjoy the puzzle of developing an experiment to test a hypothesis, followed by determining what was right, what was wrong, and what needs to be done next. A second, but related, aspect is bringing together different ideas from different people in an effort to figure out how each piece relates to the bigger picture.

5. What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? The most effective researchers love what they are doing, to the point that they keep on trying even when they get it wrong or when things aren’t progressing well. Probably the second most important characteristic is creativity, which is required to think of tests for hypotheses and to design elegant experiments.

6. What are the societal benefits of your research? Many of the issues present in society today have to do with inequity. To give an immediate example, in the health care debates one of the fundamental questions is whether everyone deserves equal access to healthcare (that is, everyone’s is the same) or equitable access (that is, proportional to their need). Of course, this raises additional questions (how do you make things the same, and who determines need?), but by understanding how decisions are made in these contexts we may be able to better frame such debates to get results that are both efficient and have general approval.

7. Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My graduate advisor was extremely influential in my thinking and in my development as a scientist. I have also had numerous collaborators throughout my career who have helped to shape the ways in which I look at and think about research questions.

8. What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? People seem to be most surprised that we don’t make a new discovery every day. Despite how it is portrayed in Hollywood, most of my studies take months to years to complete. Moreover, a major part of science is writing grants and papers to fund and disseminate the research, which is definitely not a part of the popular stereotype of the scientist!

9. If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Without a question, the monkeys and apes. However, if I had the time for one more thing, I would make sure my laptop made it out, too!

10. What music do you play most often in your lab or car? My favorites are Classical and Baroque, especially when I am writing, but my playlist encompasses a fairly wide variety!

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.