Thursday, October 18, 2007

In an Ultimatum Game, Chimps, but not humans, are rational maximizers

Another interesting bit of work from Tomasello's group (PDF here), in which they devised an ingenious apparatus for a mini-ultimatum game, a reduced form of the ultimatum game in which proposers are given a choice between making one of two pre-set offers which the responder can then accept or reject. The proposer had as one option an amount that would typically be rejected by a human responder as unfair, namely 80% for the proposer and 20% for the responder. The most important finding was that responders tended to accept any offer. These results support the hypothesis that other-regarding preferences and aversion to inequitable outcomes, which play key roles in human social organization, distinguish us from our closest living relatives. Here is their abstract, slightly edited:
Traditional models of economic decision-making assume that people are self-interested rational maximizers. Empirical research has demonstrated, however, that people will take into account the interests of others and are sensitive to norms of cooperation and fairness. In one of the most robust tests of this finding, the ultimatum game, individuals will reject a proposed division of a monetary windfall, at a cost to themselves, if they perceive it as unfair. Here we show that in an ultimatum game, humans' closest living relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), are rational maximizers and are not sensitive to fairness.

Figure: Illustration of the testing environment. The proposer, who makes the first choice, sits to the responder's left. The apparatus, which has two sliding trays connected by a single rope, is outside of the cages. (A) By first sliding a Plexiglas panel (not shown) to access one rope end and by then pulling it, the proposer draws one of the baited trays halfway toward the two subjects. (B) The responder can then pull the attached rod, now within reach, to bring the proposed food tray to the cage mesh so that (C) both subjects can eat from their respective food dishes (clearly separated by a translucent divider).

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