Fairness is innate, even for capuchin monkeys

Fairness is Innate, Even for Capuchin Monkeys

Fairness is innate, emotional, a visceral reaction. We’ve all felt it. Your sister was the favorite child in the family. A person cuts in line in front of you. Your teammate on a project gets promoted over you. Sometimes we label our reaction as envy or jealousy, but we instinctively know when we’re being treated unfairly.

We’re not unique in this response. Watch this short (and funny!) video about an experiment in fairness featuring two Capuchin monkeys:

As you can see in the video, Frans de Waal‘s experiment was performed in the context of testing the pillars of morality: reciprocity and empathy.

Fairness is a type of reciprocity. Capuchin monkeys live in social groups. Like all primates, they have complex relationships within their groups, and notice changes in treatment, stature, and bonding. When reciprocity is missing, social strife occurs. Cucumbers get hurled.

In many ways, applying marketing to social goods can help meet our basic need for fairness. One example is equitable access to public services. Designing handicap access to public structures and services can be seen as a product marketing task for addressing the needs of an important subgroup of a target market. It can also be seen as a matter of simple fairness to people who pay taxes and need social goods just like everyone else.

I think a community with greater fairness is also a stronger, more productive, and healthier community. In today’s polarized political climate, discussions of fairness can sometime devolve into accusations of elitism or entitlement. But as the video shows, fairness is innate and a deeper instinct than politics.

How do you think our political and governmental debates might change if we acknowledged our basic need and instinct for fairness?


  1. […] shown in my previous post on fairness featuring video about Capuchin monkeys who were paid unequally, fairness is innate.  But what is the evolutionary benefit of […]

  2. […] emotions in others. We can feel their happiness. I think this forms a biological basis for our innate sense of fairness. If we see someone else receiving a reward, we can be happy for them. But, if it’s a reward […]

  3. […] At least some of this comes down to suffering by comparison. But that’s still suffering. Ask the Capuchin monkeys. […]

  4. […] a core premise of this blog is that fairness is innate in social animals like us humans. Our social nature and fairness is the basis of social […]


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