‘Animal Behavioral Economics’: Lessons Learnt from Primate Research

Economic Thought 4.1: 80-106, 2015

44 Pages Posted: 4 Jul 2014 Last revised: 7 Jul 2015

Date Written: March 31, 2015


The paper gives an overview of primate research and the economic-ethical lessons we can derive from it. In particular, it examines the complex, multi-faceted, and partially conflicting nature of (non-)human primates. Our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, are apparently walking on two legs: a selfish and a groupish leg. Given evolutionary continuity and gradualism between monkeys, apes and humans, human primates seem to be also bipolar apes. They, too, tend to display a dual structure: there seems to be a pro-social and a self-interested side to our species; a bipolar tension seems to exist between competition and cooperation respectively between self-interest and the common good. We are apparently at the same time Homines oeconomici and Homines culturali. Our inner ape tries to combine self-interested and common good motives. Based on de Waal’s Russian doll model, the essay investigates the evolutionary origins of morality and eusociality. With the help of selected case studies stemming from behavioral sciences/economics, the paper illustrates examples of empathy, altruism, reciprocal fairness, pro-social and other-regarding preferences, inequity aversion, and altruistic punishment in (non-)human primates. Beside this selfless and groupish side, the paper also reflects on the self-interest and egoistic nature of (non-)human primates and the behavioral and cognitive differences between monkeys, apes and humans.

Keywords: Primate research, mirror neurons, empathy, theory of mind, token economy, multi-level natural selection/group selection, dual motive theory, triune brain

Suggested Citation

Wörsdörfer, Manuel, ‘Animal Behavioral Economics’: Lessons Learnt from Primate Research (March 31, 2015). Economic Thought 4.1: 80-106, 2015, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2461723 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2461723

Manuel Wörsdörfer (Contact Author)

University of Maine ( email )

Orono, ME 04469
United States

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