NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 14, 2005

Basic human economic tendencies and preoccupations -- such as reciprocity, the division of rewards, and cooperation -- are often demonstrated in animals, says Frans B.M. de Waal (Scientific American).

Reciprocity, whereby humans and other animals exchange benefits, occurs through a variety of channels, but the common thread is that benefits find their way back to the original giver:

  • Symmetry-based: mutual affection between two parties prompts similar behavior in both directions.
  • Attitudinal: parties mirror one another's attitudes, exchanging favors on the spot.
  • Calculated: individuals keep track of the benefits they exchange with particular partners, which helps them decide to whom to return favors.

Like humans, animals take care in choosing their trading partners, and these exchanges are subject to the forces of supply and demand.

Research with monkeys also shows that animals cooperate to obtain food and then divide the spoils. In one experiment, two monkeys are housed in a cage separated by a wire mesh, with food out of the reach of both unless they cooperate by pulling leavers:

  • Both monkeys cooperate to pull food toward the cage, even though only one monkey would have access to it.
  • The "winning" monkey then shared the food, either by allowing its neighbor to reach through the mesh or less commonly, by pushing the food to the other.

Source: Frans B.M. de Waal, "How Animals Do Business," Scientific American, April 2005.

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