Monkeying Around With Morality

Frans de Waal: Moral Behavior in Animals

This link is to a 15 minute Ted Talk given by Frans de Waal about research done pertaining to moral behavior in animals. Although the definition of morality is very broad, Frans de Waal narrowed it down to what he calls “The Pillars of Morality.” His research focuses on these “pillars” or morality fundamentals: reciprocity, fairness, empathy, and compassion. The video contains footage from experiments aimed at getting a better idea of how animals (mainly primates) handle social situations that involve “moral behavior.” For example, chimps with no interest in a food reward are able to cooperate with reward-seeking chimps. This behavior may be attributed to chimps being a species that can “return favors.”  Elephants were also shown to have cooperative capabilities. However, elephants, being very smart animals, were even able to even best experimental design. In addition to cooperative tendencies, chimps can also exhibit “yawn contagion,” a reaction commonly associated with empathy in humans. Furthermore, chimps are also able to show pro-social behavior. In an experiment where one chimp has the power to give their partner a reward, the chimp chooses to do so a significant number of times. It should be noted, the “deciding chimp” gets a reward no matter what their decision is. The “deciding chimps” were also shown to modify their behavior based on how nice their partner was to them. Even though I really liked the crafty elephants, I think the best footage is at the end with the Capuchin monkeys. The experiment was designed to determine the “fairness factor” of monkeys. The monkeys ended up rejecting “unequal pay” from the researchers (cucumber vs grape). Some people claim this action doesn’t show an understanding of fairness. These scientists believe the monkey who gets the higher reward (a grape) must decline the treat until his partner is also given a grape in order to display fairness. However, Frans de Waal does add that this “more approved” fairness behavior was exhibited in some test cases.

I thought this video was really great, especially since it actually showed experiment footage. It was interesting to see primates exhibiting at least the fundamentals of morality. Although primates may not have the same complex social structure as humans, they do have the capacity to show many social behaviors once thought impossible for animals. Research on animals constantly shows they are more intelligent and complex than we give them credit for. This is some really intriguing and challenging work! I think coming up with the extremely focused experimental designs required to do morality research would be very difficult. Plus, even if you think you finally achieved a flawless design, the animals (like the elephants) are always more than happy to outsmart you!

Related BloggerheadSeaTurtle article: I Find the Defendant Guilty… and a Rooster

Capuchin Monkey. Wiki Commons: Steven G. Johnson

Capuchin Monkey. Wiki Commons: Steven G. Johnson


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