Are Chimps Smarter than Humans?

Thom Lambert —  11 October 2007

I’ve previously hypothesized that the persistence of legal rules that lead to less overall wealth but seemingly more equitable distributions (rules such as the insider trading ban and Regulation FD) may stem from the fact that individuals are “hard-wired” to favor fairness, even if they must sacrifice some wealth to achieve it. That seems to be one of the lessons of the Ultimatum Game, in which offerees routinely sacrifice wealth in order to protest proposed allocations they deem to be unfair. (I describe the Ultimatum Game in the post linked above.)

I also observed that there are reasons to believe there’s an evolutionary basis for this taste for fairness (and willingness to pay for it). Primatologists have observed that monkeys trained to exchange a pebble for a cucumber slice (a very good deal for the monkeys!) will quit making such beneficial exchanges if they observe other monkeys receiving more favorable treatment, such as a yummy grape for the pebble. The put-upon monkeys are apparently willing to suffer a wealth loss in order to protest what they perceive to be an inequitable outcome. Thus, I argued, there appears to be some evolutionary basis for the results of the Ultimatum Game.

So what am I to make of new research showing that chimpanzees playing the Ultimatum Game will not reject “unfair” offers? The chimps appear to take the seemingly rational view that it’s better to have some wealth, even if others get an unfairly large portion, than to have no wealth.

Wonder what a society of chimps would make of John Edwards’ candidacy?

(HT: Mizzou Law alumnus, Evan Fitts)

Thom Lambert


I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

10 responses to Are Chimps Smarter than Humans?


    Paul makes a good point about how fairness can be framed differently based on a more expansive view of one’s starting point. If 100 grapes was reframed as my starting point (as if I grew them) and I offered you one, it would be difficult for you to argue that was unfair (although I know many people who would try anyway).

    One could speculate, along the similar lines, that as our sense of what’s “fair” evolves in an atmosphere of increasing transparency, that to the extent that perceptions of fairness have real consequences, the market could figure out how to deal it.

    For instance, one could imagine insider trading, even in the complete absence of insider trading laws, being dealt with by boards creating and enforcing policies that managers cannot profit from inside information in order to communicate to the investment community that trading in their stock is a “fair game.” And the board and management might be willing to vigorously enforce such provisions to the extent they are convinced that doing so reduces their cost of capital (increasing the value of their equity), much like they now believe that prohibitions from back-dating options (which is legal) may have a similar effect.


    I would be interested to know how “fairness” is defined, and if this “fairness” is defined differently across different cultures. If a “feeling” of fairness is the only requirement and fairness does not have an absolute value(such as two people, 50/50 at the time of the transaction), then it is plausible to conclude that the trick is change how fairness is judged.

    Assuming insider trading was legal perhaps one could argue more broadly by stating that if you judge the circumstances at the time of the purchase/sale of stock, then it would seemingly appear unfair that someone had “inside” information and presumably profited from that “inside” information. However, in the broader sense, the transaction is fair because that person acquired that position which has the known benefit of insider information. In other words, every professional position has benefits, and insider information just happens to be one benefit of this particular position.

    That argument could be bolstered by the fact the general public has plenty of opportunities to invest in other stock that provides contractual protections against insider trading.


    Alternative title to posting:

    “Why do monkeys, but not some law-and-econ professors, understand the value of being recognized as a moral equal?”



    Thanks for the shout out. As I indicated in my e-mail, I’m displeased that my proposed working title “Opposable Thumbs Be Damned” was not selected for the piece.


    I understand the “level playing field” rationale behind the law, and agree that the problems it was INTENDED to solve were real. I also understand that the lawyers weren’t pushing it. What I’m asking is whether, in hindsight, anyone has actually felt helped by this rule?

    As far as I can see, managers have used this rule, sometimes as a convenient cover, to dramatically constrict the overall flow of information to investors. Most managers and institutional investors are unhappy about that. The “small investor” might have gained a level playing field, but it’s a crappy, rutted, dirt lot playing field. I’m not very sympathetic to small investors–they should all be in index funds–even so, I don’t hear small investors celebrating this new landscape, either.

    The only people I know of who think FD is a good idea are people who have read about its intent and think it sounds good, not people who are actually in the markets, even small investors.


    I just don’t understand why anyone cares about Reg FD, given that the best way to make money on the stock market is to invest in lawn mowers.

    Elizabeth Nowicki 11 October 2007 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve not asked. I take it as a given that, if offered the choice of having a level playing field or not, most folks would take the level playing field.

    Moreover, in response to your comment about the lawyers at the SEC, it was never the lawyers who were the driving force behind Reg FD. It was Arthur Levitt, who was most decidedly *not* a lawyer. As you likely know, he was a former Wall Steet guy, with a long stint as AMEX chairman, who saw how analysts were commodifying material, non-public information, forcing executives to proffer it as a quid pro quo for [good] coverage. Analysts would call executives and ask for “guidance,” with the understanding being that the failure to “guide” (or “tip,” if we are being honest) would impact coverage. Executives who did not want to unfairly share material, non-public information with only a select few were jammed between a rock and a hard place.

    In that vein, who has Reg FD helped? In addition to those who value the level playing field, it has helped executives who did not see the analyst information-exchange game as being healthy.


    Here’s a question from someone in the trenches with investors, managers, and various of their intermediaries: can you name me one group of market participants who actually think Reg FD has helped them (never mind the markets as a whole)? Aside from the lawyers in the SEC and DOJ, I mean.

    Elizabeth Nowicki 11 October 2007 at 6:17 pm

    The first monkey study involves monkeys who KNOW there is a better option. Grapes instead of cukes. The monkeys being offered cukes are holding out for the grapes. There is a better option, and they know it, dammit. (I am channeling the rage of the monkey. In the study to which you refer, I think some of the monkeys actually THREW their cukes at the researchers because they wanted the grapes, right?)

    But, as I read the new study (which I cnanot find in full, but found better summarized on, it seems that the chimps saw their option as (1) take what was offered or (2) get nothing.

    How does that line up with Regulation FD?

    market failure, right here 11 October 2007 at 10:09 am

    It’s also worth considering that humans are just as closely related to the bonobo monkey as to chimps. Bonobos are peace-loving, female dominated, and routinely engage in gay sex.