These interesting observations by Proctor, de Waal et al. using a new experimental design that resolves conflicting data in studies by other authors suggest that our human sense of fairness has an early origin in primate behavior.
Is the sense of fairness uniquely human? Human reactions to reward division are often studied by means of the ultimatum game, in which both partners need to agree on a distribution for both to receive rewards. Humans typically offer generous portions of the reward to their partner, a tendency our close primate relatives have thus far failed to show in experiments. Here we tested chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and human children on a modified ultimatum game. One individual chose between two tokens that, with their partner’s cooperation, could be exchanged for rewards. One token offered equal rewards to both players, whereas the other token favored the chooser. Both apes and children responded like humans typically do. If their partner’s cooperation was required, they split the rewards equally. However, with passive partners—a situation akin to the so-called dictator game—they preferred the selfish option. Thus, humans and chimpanzees show similar preferences regarding reward division, suggesting a long evolutionary history to the human sense of fairness.