Some of the most important insights we have learned about ourselves have come from studying animals, particularly the social ones such as primates, elephants, dolphins and corvids. This was profoundly illustrated in an experiment done with capuchin monkeys by the Dutch-American primatologist, Frans de Waal (Guardian Weekly, Oct. 28/16).
De Waal’s experiment, described in his book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, and presented in a TED talk, was illuminating. Two capuchin monkeys were rewarded with a piece of cucumber for learning to do the same simple task. The capuchins, situated in adjoining cages so they could see each other, happily engaged in the game, routinely doing their task and each getting their piece of cucumber.
Then the researcher changed the game. One of the capuchins, instead of getting a piece of cucumber, was rewarded with a grape, regarded by the monkeys as a much more valuable commodity. The second capuchin, who could see the grape transaction, soon refused to do its task. It rattled its cage in apparent frustration, threw its cucumber at the researcher, and exhibited other characteristics of anger. Its tantrum was in response to its perception of inequitable treatment.
Anthropologists have described this behaviour as “inequity aversion”, a fundamental part of the moral contract that has developed in social animals over the course of their evolutionary history.
This, too, is a crucial component in the psychology and morality of humans, so engrained in us over the course of thousands of millennia that it is in the very fabric of our genes—little children, for example, seem to have an innate sense of fairness. Indeed, this fairness is the reciprocity that holds societies together and allows them to function. When it is violated by a perceived inequity, then we can expect an outburst comparable to the capuchin that was merely getting a piece of cucumber instead of a grape for the same effort.
This elegantly explains the two political events that shocked the world in 2016: the Brexit vote of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. In each case, the voters were responding to a perceived inequity in their treatment by a system that is supposed to be fair. Wealth and benefits are not being distributed equally — the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is shrinking. The economic system has been breaking the social contract, and the voters responded with the equivalent of a capuchin tantrum. All the political pundits who were bewildered by the outcome should have been attentive to such people as a 68-year-old retired carpenter, Edward Tucker, living in the unemployed industrial heartland of America.
“I think Trump is nuts, but I’d love to have him as president to see what happens,” he said.
“I wouldn’t want to end up in some kind of war or anything,” he added. “But something is going to change if [Trump] is president. We just don’t know what” (Ibid., Nov. 18/16). The change they want is to a system that is violating their fundamental sense of social fairness. So the voters are rattling their cages and throwing cucumbers.