Are Animals Fair?

The other night I was watching a bear rip the flesh off another bear and it was pretty awful.  Turns out the male bear wanted to mate with a female bear but she was fending him off while another female bear cozied up to him. The female bear he wanted got mad at the other female, so she charged her, and when the male bear got wind of this, he killed the other female.  Then the first female decided to mate with him.  Guess she likes her bears manly.


None of that seemed fair to me.  Yet a new study has found that humans aren’t the only species to react strongly to actions they consider unfair. A similar drive for fairness in monkeys and some dogs has been observed, reports. Notice, they don't say bears.

Domestic dogs are more concerned with the quantity of treats doled out by a trainer than whether the trainer distributes them fairly, according to Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, of Barnard College. In her study, dogs had to select a “fair” or “unfair” trainer. Older dogs were more responsive to fair trainers than their younger counterparts, which suggest that a longer human-dog relationship may affect a dog’s sense of fairness.

Chimpanzees and Capuchin monkeys will refuse a reward for a task completed with a partner if the partner receives a better reward, according to Sarah Brosnan, PhD, of Georgia State University.   "These species show negative reactions to continued inequity between themselves and a social partner, typically evidenced 
by refusals to continue participating in interactions in which the outcome is repeatedly less good than a 
partner’s," she writes.

Even preschoolers have gotten into the act. Kristina Olson, PhD, of the University of Washington, says her studies show that preschoolers will favor someone who has more than others, even after an unfair distribution of resources, but only if they have forgotten how those resources were distributed.

So, do animals really know about fairness?  

The popular belief that the natural world is based on competition is a simplification, primatologist Frans de Waal tells CNN reporter Elizabeth Landau. "The strength of one's immune system, and the ability to find food, are also crucial. And many animals survive by cooperating," she writes.

"The struggle for life is not necessarily literally a struggle," he said at "Humans are a highly cooperative species, and we can see in our close relatives where that comes from."

Mammals such as wolves, orcas and elephants need their groups to survive, and empathy and cooperation are survival mechanisms, she quotes de Waal. 

"We think that empathy evolved to take care of others that you need to take care of, especially, of course, between mother and offspring, which is universal in all the mammals," de Waal told Landau.

But is empathy the same thing as fairness?  (I suppose you can't have one without the other.)

de Waal tells Landau that you can't say monkeys have an intellectual sense of justice.  But the emotional reactions researchers have observed indicates that there is, at a more basic level, a sense of justice among them, Landau writes.

If an animal gets more than another, is there is a feeling that this is somehow unjust? And if one shares food with another, is there an expectation of returning the favor? de Waal found in his research that, like children,monkeys feel they "need to get the same thing as somebody else," Landau quotes de Waal.

Capuchin monkeys were upset, selfishly, when they didn't get the grapes that their neighbors received, his studies showed, she notes. But later experiments showed something else.

"We are (now) thinking that they have a higher level, where they worry about reward division in general," she quotes de Waal, "and it's now unclear how they differ from humans."

In the new studies, researchers found that "chimpanzees and children both tended to make decisions about splitting rewards similarly to adult humans. In the situation where the responder could accept or reject the division of rewards, both chimpanzees and children tended to split the rewards with their partners," Landau writes.

But when the partner was not given the opportunity to reject the proposal, chimps and kids tended to choose the selfish arrangement -- a token that favored the chooser, she adds.

So are animals really like us when it comes to fairness? Certainly, the bears weren't.  I guess you could say, in certain situations, some are.  But I think I'll stay away from bears.


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