Orangutan economics

With the recent world-wide recession, economics are on the minds of many people. But the underlying cognitive skills for basic economics can also be demonstrated in apes, such as orangutans. It appears that humans are not the only ones that are concerned with the market.

A recent study by Valerie Dufour and colleagues (click here for the original article) demonstrated that two orangutans could successfully trade meaningful tokens with each other for food rewards. The two orangutans each had access to tokens which were useless to themselves, but meaningful to their partner as well as tokens that were worthless to both of them. The orangutans would trade with each other for the tokens that were meaningful to the other, but leave the neutral tokens alone. Towards the end of the study, these trades became equitable. In other words, both orangutans received the same number of tokens that they traded; they were engaging in a basic form of calculated reciprocity. If you give me one token, I will give you one token.

This principle of giving another individual something (i.e. money) in exchange for something that is more useful to you (i.e. a hamburger) is what forms the basis of economics. In today’s world, humans have taken that principle and made it much more complicated by incorporating other concepts such as the stock market and compound interest. However, exchanging valuable items between individuals is the central idea behind all of our complex economics. And now, we have evidence that another species also has this cognitive capability.

However, more research needs to be done in this area as these results were found with a very small sample of orangutans (two). Additionally, it is still unclear if the orangutans understood the task well enough to exchange tokens in a tit-for-tat manner. While the orangutans exchanged equitably, it was not clear that if their partner defected by giving a meaningless token, that the first would also respond immediately with a meaningless token in a tit-for-tat manner. Still, this is the first study to demonstrate some evidence for immediate calculated reciprocity.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how scientists reinterpret other forms of reciprocity. Vampire bats, for example, will share blood with others in their group that were not as successful feeding on a given night. It is somewhat expected, that the individual that was shared with will share in the future. If an individual cheats, or takes blood but does not give any in return, then others will cease sharing. This type of sharing has previously been called reciprocal altruism. One individual gives without an immediate payback, but some type of payback is expected in the future. If there is no payback, then the cheater is punished by not being shared with in the future. While there is not an immediate exchange between vampire bats, it seems that they are calculating, on some level, which of their group mates ‘pay them back’ for sharing. With the new experimental evidence from the orangutans suggesting that immediate calculated reciprocity is cognitively possible, researchers should now explore whether there is the cognitive ability to calculate reciprocity with a delay. Perhaps, vampire bats are engaging in calculated reciprocity, but over time.

Regardless of the labels we apply to economic behaviors in other species, it is clear that humans are not the only species that can engage in meaningful economic exchanges.

— Darby Proctor