Monkeys Show Their Generous Side

  by  |  September 12th, 2008  |  Published in All, Animals & Life Science, Brain & Psychology


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The idea that "it’s better to give than receive" may not be limited to just humans. Now researchers have found a group of monkeys that seem to get pleasure from giving.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: Frans de Waal, Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Produced & Edited by Chris Bergendorff
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc. with additional footage
courtesy Oregon Health & Science University

Monkey Business

Everybody knows that it feels good to do good. Giving someone a gift can be just as rewarding as getting one yourself. In fact, studies using MRI scans have shown that the part of our brain that stimulates pleasure when
receiving a gift also reacts when giving one.

Until now, scientists believed that such emotional responses were distinctly human traits, but new research indicates monkeys have them too.

Primatologist Frans de Waal, at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, gave a group of capuchin monkeys a task that involved taking one of two tokens while in the presence of another monkey.

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"One token would give them a reward, and the other token would give them and their partner a reward. So the first token we call a selfish token, because you only work for yourself. This second token we call a pro-social token, because we reward both monkeys at the same time," says de Waal.

The selfish token was colored purple, while the pro-social was green. Once the monkey had chosen, their reward would be a piece of fruit, given to them by the same researcher presenting the tokens.

As de Waal wrote in the Proceedings of The National Academy Of Sciences, if their partner was a stranger, the monkey made the selfish choice. However, if their partner was family or simply familiar to them, the monkey would consistently choose the ‘pro-social’ token.

De Waal also found that monkeys were selfish if their partner received better rewards, such as a grape instead of a piece of apple. The monkeys were unwilling to share rewards when they knew they weren’t profiting equally with their partner. This finding supports previous research showing a sense of fairness in monkeys.
Monkey with baby

Why use capuchins, rather than another species? As de Waal explains, “Capuchins happen to be, not only smart, but they are also cooperative. They share food with each other, they cooperate sometimes with each other, they hunt together for example in the wild. And so we figured if you want to look at pro-social tendencies, you have to look at cooperative species."

But are monkeys as charitable as people? Not quite. De Waal discovered that if a monkey was unable to see their partner, such as when a large panel was put between them, the monkey would make the selfish choice. Apparently, for monkeys, out of sight really is out of mind, at least when it comes to sharing a reward.

"This is actually quite a difference with humans, because I think humans are more imaginative. So we send money to faraway people in Thailand, who were hit by the tsunami, because we can imagine what good it will do for them," says de Waal.

So while monkeys may not be donating to charity anytime soon, it seems they do know a thing or two about giving.

Elsewhere on the Web
Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
National Institutes of Health

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Responses

  1. Get International Clients says:

    September 15th, 2008 at 6:14 am (#)

    Very impressive study. I read the book “Influencer” that had a study about children given the option of eating a candy now, or waiting a short time (I forget how long, maybe 15 minutes) and getting 2 instead of one. Most kids could not wait the time limit, but if they saw what an adult did to not eat – get occupied in another way – they copied the adults.

    I wonder if the monkeys could be taught to act in the same way.

  2. Dogs Become Bitter When You Withhold Their Snausages | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    December 8th, 2008 at 11:46 am (#)

    [...] little tantrums and ignore further directions when discriminated against. (Monkeys have also been shown to have a generous side.) Now, through a series of tests and observations, Friederike Range and fellow researchers [...]

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