Tag Archives: fairness

Ravens remember the faces of people who duped them into unfair deals

You better be nice to ravens — or they’ll remember you treated them badly next time they see you. According to a recent study, ravens (Corvus corax) can distinguish and remember people who treated them unfairly in the past shedding more light on the complex social lives of some of the most intelligent creatures on there.

Don't be a dick with ravens, like this fox. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Don’t be a dick with ravens, like this fox. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

A raven’s grudge

In the classic Aesop fable “The Fox and the Raven”, a raven is tricked by a sly fox into dropping the delicious piece of cheese from its beak. The fox flatters the bird asking it to sing or speak, depending on the variation of the story. ‘You were not dumb, it seems, you have indeed a voice; you have everything, Sir Crow, except brains,’ says the fox who runs off with the yummy morsel.

The truth is ravens have plenty of brains. These birds score on par with chimps on cognitive tests, use gestures to point out things and communicate, they can also tell if someone’s looking at them or not and can remember people’s faces.  In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast.

As for the fox in Aesop’s fable, it better be careful next time. According to a new paper published in the journal Animal Behavior, ravens learn to prefer trainers who have treated them fairly over those who have ripped them off.

The conclusion was reported by researchers in  Vienna and Sweden who trained common ravens to trade crust of bread for a morsel of cheese with human partners who acted as the broker. After this initial round, the researchers observed what happened when the birds dealt with ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ partners. The latter humans would simply keep the bread after it was offered by the raven and scandalously ate the cheese. Trick me once but you won’t trick me twice, the raven must have thought. Indeed, the ravens purposely avoided the cheating humans in separate trials a month later. This can only mean that ravens not only have a sense of fairness, they hold grudges for at least a month too, signaling a fine memory. They likely hold on to these grudges for far longer than a month, much like my ex-girlfriend.

Ravens aren’t the only non-human animals with a sense of fairness. Dogs and wolves share it, as do chimpanzees and likely many other creatures.

Dogs and capuchins judge you as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, hint at the birth of human morality

Humans aren’t the only species who appreciate kindness, a new study shows. Pet dogs and capuchin monkeys have been shown preference for people that help others, pointing to a possible origin of our sense of morality.

Image credits Fathromi Ramdlon / Pixabay.

Personal preference certainly plays a hand but for the most part, humans share an instinctive understanding of right and wrong — a certain innate morality that goes beyond upbringing. Previous studies have shown that children as young as three-months-old can recognize ‘bad’ behavior and have pretty complex responses to it.

But where does this infant morality spring forth from? To find out, Kyoto University comparative psychologist James Anderson and his colleagues tested if other species exhibit this sense of right and wrong. Their tests on dogs and capuchin monkeys show that these species make similar social evaluations.

There’s something fishy about you


The team first tested capuchins in two settings — first to see if they show any preference for ‘good’ people, and then to gauge their attitude to perceived fairness.

The monkeys watched an actor trying to open a container with a toy inside and seemingly fail. He would then present the container to a second actor, who would either help or refuse him. After the show, both actors offered food to the capuchins who had to decide on which one to accept.

They were then shown two actors who began the test with three balls each. One of the actors would request them from his companion who handed all three over. When asked to give them back, he either handed all three balls over or refuse to pass them up. As before, these two actors then offered the monkeys food.

If the second actor helped with the container or returned the balls, the monkeys didn’t show any preference between the offers of food. However, if he refused to help or didn’t hand over the balls, they showed a preference for the first actor, accepting food from him more often.

Suspicious Capuchins.

Yea you better hand them balls back, boy.
Image credits One more shot Rog / Flickr.

The next step was to test if dogs responded more positively to people who helped their owner than to those who refused to do so. Each owner was given a container that he would struggle to open and present to one of two actors. This actor would either help or deny the owner’s request. The second actor remained passive. Both then offered the dog a reward that it had to choose from.

Like the capuchins, dogs didn’t show any preference if the actor helped the owner. If he refused to help, the dogs were more likely to take the second actor’s treat.

There’s something fishy about you

Anderson considers the results as proof that capuchins and dogs make social estimations somewhat similar to those of infants. It’s not necessarily a conscious reaction, but an emotional one.

“If somebody is behaving antisocially, they probably end up with some sort of emotional reaction to it,” he says.

And if capuchins they can pick up on clues in human interaction, it’s almost certain that they can do so with other primates. It’s likely that they rely on this moral code to decide which members of the group are reliable and which are likely to rip them off. Dogs, on the other hand, have a long history shared with humans and have evolved to be very perceptive of human behavior, be it with a dog or another human. In both cases, this capacity to estimate other group members’ worth would help cement social systems by excluding bad cooperation partners.

So it’s not that capuchins or dogs have a burning desire to set the world on a path to righteousness — rather, it’s about trust and reputation:’This monkey won’t return my stuff, so I won’t share my stuff with it.’ ‘This human won’t help mine open his stuff. That’s not something a good member of the pack does, so I’ll be wary of him until I know what he’s about.’

It’s an important skill to have in a situation where cooperating is the only way to survive. On the one hand, it guards individuals from raw deals. On the other, recognizing when you’re doing something ‘bad’ is vital if you are to remain in the group.

It’s possible that our inbuilt sense of morality is rooted in these early social evaluation mechanism.

“I think that in humans there may be this basic sensitivity towards antisocial behaviour in others. Then through growing up, inculturation and teaching, it develops into a full-blown sense of morality,” says Anderson.

The full paper “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs” has been published online in the journal Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews.


Fighting unfairness at a tender age


Photo: lifehacker.com

Parents have their work cut out for them as it is, but the ordeal becomes even greater when they’re faced with an unscrupulous judge – their own children. We all know the drill: crying out loud, feet stumping, all glared with the oh-so familiar phrase: “IT’S NOT FAIR!!!”. Well, seems like in some instances children can teach us a thing or two about fairness. The kind of thing a lot parents forget – having a god damn backbone!

Put your money where your mouth is

A study by researchers at Harvard University found that children from a tender age have an advanced idea of fairness and are willing to step forward and pay a personal price to intervene a situation they perceive as an unfair. This decision is group-biased dominant in children aged six or less, but those aged eight or more were found to intervene in unfair situation and stop any selfish behavior, whether or not the victim was a member of their group.

“People have looked at this phenomenon extensively in adults, but this is the first time we’ve been able to investigate it in children,” said Warneken. “The idea that children would care about inequity happening between individuals who aren’t there, that in itself is somewhat surprising. They care about justice or fairness and are willing to intervene against selfish actions, and are even willing to pay a cost to do that.”

The researchers divided 64 children into two age groups (six and eight years old) and asked them to a play child-friendly version of the economic games used in other studies. Before the games commenced, the researchers established a group identity using “minimal group paradigm” in which researchers assigned each child to a team identified by the colors blue and yellow, rather than using pre-existing groups like race or hair color that children were already aware of. Thus, children were assigned colored T-shirts, drew using their exclusively markers of their assigned color, wore blue or yellow party hats, and so on. 

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After testing to ensure the children showed preferences for their own group, each was presented with an apparatus showing how children — represented only by paper bags marked with faces and hats showing which color team they were on — had divided up six Skittles candies the day before. Children were then asked to be a third-party judge of whether the split was fair.

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If the child approved of the division, the participants were told, the other children would receive the candy. If not, children in the study had to sacrifice one of their own candy pieces, and the candy belonging to other two players would be thrown away.

Both age groups recognized unfairness and were inclined to intervene, but sensitivity against selfishness became more pronounced with age. This sensitivity was indeed influenced by the group they belonged too.

“In 6-year-olds, we found that there were two types of in-group bias,” Jordan explained. “First, they were more lenient in their punishment of selfish behavior that came from a member of their own group. And second, they were harsher in their punishment of selfish behavior that harmed a member of their group.”

For the 8-year-old group, things were significantly different. While they were still inclined to show leniency when selfish behavior came from a member of their own group, Jordan and colleagues were surprised to find that they were equally willing to punish selfish behavior that harmed members of either group.

“The 8-year-olds were less biased than the 6-year-olds,” Jordan explained. “They were more willing to pay personal costs, and were less biased in the sense that they felt it was equally bad to treat people selfishly, regardless of what group they were in. They started to see out-group members as legitimate victims, or just as legitimate as in-group members.”

The findings, published in this week’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are most remarkable. They show that children have a well defined sense of fairness, and are willing to put ‘their money where their mouth is’. Next, the researchers plan to see whether this behavior is culturally influenced by conducting similar studies in Uganda and Vanuatu.

Chimpanzees have a sense of fairness

Chimpanzees have the same sense of fair-play as humans do, explain researchers who played the Ultimatum game with them – it’s the first time such a trait was observed in a non-human species.

Playing a fair game

Chimpanzees munch on leek at Tokyo's Tam

The Ultimatum game is a simple game often used in economy game theory in which the two players involved interact to decide how to split a sum of money that is given to them; the rules are simple: the first person decides on how to split a sum of money, and the second player can agree or decline. If the second player agrees, then they split it that way, but if he disagrees, none of them get anything.

The results suggest that much like humans, who as a species have an aversion towards unfairness (though as individuals, that can be quite different), chimps like fair play.

“We used the Ultimatum Game because it is the gold standard to determine the human sense of fairness. In the game, one individual needs to propose a reward division to another individual and then have that individual accept the proposition before both can obtain the rewards,” says Darby Proctor of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University.

When humans play the game, they are quite generous, most of the time going for a 50-50 split, even though typically, the second player accepts any amount over 25 percent. The same thing was observed in chimps.

“Humans typically offer generous portions, such as 50 percent of the reward, to their partners, and that’s exactly what we recorded in our study with chimpanzees.”

Modifying the game

The team analyzed six adult chimpanzees and 20 human children aged 3-7 years old, creating a modified version of the Ultimatum game; one individual chose between two differently colored tokens that, with the partner’s cooperation, could be exchanged for rewards. A token offered equal rewards to both players while another favored the individual at the expense of the partner.

Both the chimpanzees and the children reacted in accord to their basic nature: if cooperation is involved, they would split the entire reward equally with their partner.  However, when the partner was passive and had no chance to reject the offer, both groups chose the selfish option – giving another indication of their basic nature.

Until our study, the behavioral economics community assumed the Ultimatum Game could not be played with animals or that animals would choose only the most selfish option while playing,” says Yerkes’s Frans de Waal. “We’ve concluded that chimpanzees not only get very close to the human sense of fairness, but the animals may actually have exactly the same preferences as our own species.”