Thursday, 13 July 2017

A Fascinating Article That Comes To Totally The Wrong Conclusion

I stumbled upon this intriguing article in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Fairness” in which the author tells us about an experiment in which monkeys were taught to hand over pebbles in exchange for cucumber slices. They were happy with this deal. He goes on:

"Then the researcher randomly offered one monkey — in sight of a second — an even better deal: a grape for a pebble. Monkeys love grapes, so this fellow was thrilled. The researcher then returned to the second monkey, but presented just a cucumber for the pebble. Now, this offer was insulting. In some cases the monkey would throw the cucumber back at the primatologist in disgust. In other words, the monkeys cared deeply about fairness. What mattered to them was not just what they received but also what others got."

If Kristof had stopped there, that would have been an interesting account - when monkeys receive something but see other monkeys receiving something better they react dissonantly. That in itself is fascinating.

Unfortunately, Kristof uses this to propound the theory that what monkeys care about here is income disparities, and that this has parallels with the wider human concern about income inequalities. This is a step too far, and takes the conclusions into illogicality, because interpretations of income distribution are based on something fundamental that is missing from the monkey experiment - and that is, what people do to earn what they received.

If the teacher gives little Johnny 2 chocolate bars and little Freddy 1 chocolate bar, it might be that she has treated Johnny better than Freddy. But if beforehand she stipulated that there will be a classroom maths test, and the person who scores top marks will get 2 chocolate bars, and the runner-up 1 chocolate bar, then nothing she has done has been unfair, because Johnny and Freddy's chocolate bars were given based on merit. Their rewards were commensurate with what they did to earn those rewards.

The same is true of wages - they are not arbitrarily distributed like the cucumber and grapes in the monkey experiment - they are based on what people produce for their employer. Monkeys may suffer dissonance at income disparities irrespective of how those incomes came about, but humans generally do not - they recognise the source of the variance in the incomes.