With the development of individualism and capitalism,
our societies have given credit to the idea that we
are rational beings driven purely by self-interest. We have
disregarded evolution in order to create our own kind of
ape: the homo economicus. As a student in economics, you
have probably heard a hundred times your teachers say: “The
consumer wants to maximize his utility.”
However, there has been a rising tide of scientific research
that refutes this idea. On September 25th, expert
primatologist Professor Frans de Waal came to Toulouse to
share his surprising findings related to competitiveness and
cooperation in the animal kingdom.
Using results from 40 years of study in the fields of evolution
and genetics, Professor De Waal showed us that both
competitiveness and cooperation are tied to our biology, and
form part of human nature. We, as humans, have evolved in
such a way that our genetics have internalized the notion of
considering other individuals’ well-being into our decisionmaking
De Waal began his lecture by showing one of the earliest
experiments in cooperation done at Yerkes National Primate
Research Center. In this experiment, we observe a pair of
chimpanzees helping each other get some food by pulling
at a box that is too heavy for one of them to move alone.
This result clearly shows that chimpanzees understand that
cooperation produces benefits. The experimenters then
decided to see if the apes would still cooperate if one of the
two chimps had already been fed. There was certainly some
persuading involved, but at the end the well-fed monkey
helped its friend, even when there was no gain in it for him -
the hungry monkey ate all the food.
Another one of Professor de Waal’s most intriguing
discoveries is that apes are averse to inequities, especially
when there is no difference in the amount of effort exerted.
What de Waal found was that an ape would get upset if it
got a smaller reward than the other ape when they had both
put in the same amount of effort to perform a given task.
As the experiment continued, the monkey that was getting
the higher reward would also start to become upset, for the
situation seemed to be unfair to its partner.
De Waal called the basis for this kind of behavior, as well
as for reconciliation, the “valuable relationship hypothesis”.
Essentially, an ape will get upset if it receives a higher reward
than its peers, because it anticipates relationships being
damaged if there is no equity. This behavior is especially
apparent with individuals who have much to lose if a
particular relationship deteriorates. As he noted, the
European Union is based on the very same principle: it was
formed after World War II on the premise that if we could tie
European countries together by creating an economic pact,
then the value of the relationship would be enhanced and
countries would have more reasons to be peaceful with each
As De Waal explained, the duality of human nature, hovering
between war and peace, can be explored by looking at our
two closest primate relatives: Chimpanzees and Bonobo
monkeys. Chimpanzees are known to be murderous and
power-hungry, whereas Bonobos maintain a peaceful society
where the female is accepted as dominant. Bonobos, often
referred to as the “hippies” of the apes, resolve conflicts by
“making love, not war”.
The difference between these kinds of apes may come down
to nature versus nurture. Through studies conducted with
Stumptail monkeys, De Waal’s shows that tendencies towards
cooperation and reconciliation are strongly enhanced by a
monkey’s social environment. Therefore, reconciliation can
be seen as an acquired social skill.
For economists, this might turn out to be a particularly
interesting finding. As Frank et al. (1993) summarize in
their entertaining paper “Does Studying Economics Inhibit
Cooperation?", a series of empirical studies seem to support
the shocking hypothesis that economists behave in more
self-interested ways than most people!
However, the idea of cooperation producing more value than
competition is not unusual in the economic field. A wellknown
example can be seen in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”,
where a group of college guys decided to forgo individual
ambition - each one going after the most beautiful girl -
in favor of the best collective result, which was to go after
her friends. This way, they succeeded in their ultimate goal,
which was to leave the bar with a date for the night.
Frans de Waal considers that this human ability to cooperate
is deeply rooted in our biology, and it goes beyond the
simple desire of achieving better results than through
competition. In his words: “I am always puzzled by this claim
that we humans are uniquely cooperative. We are uniquely
cooperative on a large scale - cooperating with thousands of
people to build a road, for example. But these cooperative
tendencies that we have are not unique, and can be found in
Frank, R., Gilovich, T., & Regan, D. (1993). Does Studying
Economics Inhibit Cooperation? The Journal of Economic
Perspectives, Volume 7, Issue 2, 159-171.
Now, let's give the floor to Dr. Frans de Waal, renowned
ethologist and primatologist, famous for his work on
primate behavior. He is a professor at Emory University and
director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National
Primate Research Center.
An interview with Dr. Frans de Waal
1. As you have said yourself, you hope to look at human
society through the lens of animal behavior. What
conclusions have you been able to draw from your studies
on animals other than primates with respect to the
evolution of human behavior?
For example, we have the impression that empathy is a
mammalian characteristic. So in primatology, we often have
a tendency to say that everything is primates, and related to
primates; but a capacity like empathy, for example, is much
That is true almost for everything we have
found. Reconciliation, for example, we
observed first in primates and now it has
been observed in many other mammals.
Inequity aversion was found in the
primates first and now we see it in many
other animals. So the general tendency is
always, that we first find it in the primates
and then we find it in many other species.
This means that all these tendencies are
older than we think because, for primates,
we are talking about 30 million years ago
that certain behaviors evolved, whereas for
mammals, it goes back to 200 million years
2. It is clear that we are genetically
programmed to be both cooperative and
competitive. What would you say are
the main factors affecting the degree of
cooperation and empathy in individuals?
The degree of empathy and cooperation is
probably based on how much a species needs to cooperate.
For cooperative hunters, like wolves or orcas, there needs to
be very close coordination and cooperation for both hunting
and sharing of food, so these animals automatically form
stronger attachments to the group and its individuals.
However, there are other species that develop very strong
social ties for defensive reasons. For instance, Elephants are
very social animals who live in very dangerous environments,
where there are lots of predators. The elephants themselves
do not necessarily have a lot of predators, but the babies do,
and so elephants need to be able to protect those babies
against lions, hyenas, and the like.
So I think the level of attachment, empathy, or cooperation,
depends very much of how much it is needed, given the
lifestyle and the ecology of the animal. It is a question of
whether you need it for your survival, yes or no. Whereas, if
you are a solitary hunter, like a cat or a tiger, then you get
less of this kind of cooperation and attachment behavior.
3. What do you think economists can learn from working
with primatologists and what can primatologists learn
There is a lot of mutual learning going on. Actually,
behavioral economics, or experimental economics, is very
much the sort of thing that we do: we look at how monkeys
cooperate and how they share the payoffs, how they get
upset when those payoffs are not well shared, and under
what sorts of circumstances they develop reciprocity. These
are all sorts of economic issues, related to benefits and costs.
I think we biologists have adopted a lot of the language from
economics in that regard and economists are learning from
the primate studies that many of the tendencies that they
study are not uniquely human. These are very old tendencies
that we have integrated in a moral context, but still, our
psychology is still basically primate psychology.