Samuel Knapp, EdD, ABPP
Director of Professional Affairs - Pennsylvania Psychological Association
The Pennsylvania Psychologist
What is the nature of humankind? Are we devils who only occasionally show sparks of morality? Or are we angels who sometimes slip into depravity? This question is not merely an interesting academic exercise. Instead, our assumptions about human nature, and our capacity for good or evil, help shape our expectations of each other and our expectations for ourselves. If we assume that humans are naturally evil and aggressive, we may tolerate or justify insensitive or cruel acts. On the other hand, if we assume that humans have a strong capacity for compassion and cooperation, then we may demand more of it from others and ourselves. 
Compassion and cooperation in non-human primates
Some claim that only the restraining force of civilization keeps people from “acting like animals.” Like the children in Lord of the Flies, it is argued that only a modest breakdown of external control can unleash the worst instincts of people that are lurking under a thin surface of civility. However, consider this event that occurred at the Brookfield zoo outside of Chicago on August 16, 1996:
A 3-year-old boy climbed the wall around the gorilla enclosure and fell 18 feet on to concrete into the enclosure, where he remained unconscious. Spectators gasped when the gorilla Binti Jua picked up the child, certain that the gorilla would harm him. However, Binti Jua gently cradled the infant with her right arm and carried him to an access entrance where the zoo keeper was waiting to take the child. Her own baby, Koola clutched her back during the entire incident. (Jones, 2011).Primatologist Frans deWaal (2010) could cite this and many other less dramatic incidents to illustrate the complexity of behavior of non-human primates, including their capacity for prosocial behaviors. DeWaal is no sentimentalist. He knows that some primates, such as chimpanzees, can act with great brutality such as when they engage in lethal gang warfare against members of their own species. Nonetheless, he claims that non-human primates also show love, compassion, and social cooperation. It is simply scientifically inaccurate, he argues, to conclude that our biological heritage necessarily drives us toward cruelty and selfishness. On the contrary, empathy and cooperation, deWaal claims, may be an equal or even greater part of our biological nature than callousness and aggression.
Detailed observations of non-human primates support deWaal’s conclusions. Primatologist Barbara Smuts states that “life in African ape societies possesses all the essential ingredients of first-rate soap operas; convoluted plots, passion, lots of sex and politics, surprise endings, and a cast of distinct characters” (2000, p. 80). Non-human primates rely heavily on their social networks and have a detailed mental record keeping system of who has helped them in the past and to whom they owe obligations. They know their kin and they gravitate toward them. Children will remember their mothers; mothers appear depressed at the death of their children. Chimpanzees keep track of who groomed them this morning when they share food in the afternoon, and they support their friends during fights. When endangered they will cling to each other or hold hands. Friendships can last a life time.
Here are some examples of social cooperation:Cooperation and a sense of fairness even show up in controlled experiments. For example, monkeys are quite happy to receive a cucumber from experimenters, unless they see a companion getting a much more valued grape, whereupon they may reject the cucumber (deWaal, 2011).
• Rachael, a monkey raised in the wild and later captured, raised orphaned children as her own (Smith, 2005).
• A bonobo inserted herself between a poisonous snake and her friend at the risk of her own life (deWaal, 2011).
• A high-ranking chimpanzee ensures that all members of his social group, even lower ranking members, get something to eat from his kill (deWaal, 2011).
Compassion and cooperation in human primates
What evidence is there that these findings would generalize to human behavior? Are human primates as motivated by fairness as their non-human cousins? One source of information about human fairness and compassion comes from studies of game theory. Every fan of television crime shows has seen a version of the “prisoner’s dilemma” in which two people are arrested for a crime and are interrogated separately. Each prisoner knows that if they confess to the crime and implicate their partner, they will get a light sentence and their partner will get a heavy sentence (and conversely if their partner in crime confesses, they will get a heavy sentence, and their partner will get a light sentence), but if both prisoners refuse to talk, it is possible that neither of them will get any sentence at all.
Game theory, developed by behavioral economists, refers to simulations that are often modeled loosely on the prisoner’s dilemma. That is, in these situations participants can either gain or lose according to the degree of cooperation between them. Consider the Ultimatum Game:
Players are given a certain amount of money (for example $10) and put in separate rooms. Player one gets to decide how the money is to be split between him or her and player two. Player one could give it all away, keep it all, or give a share to player two. Then player two gets to decide whether to accept or reject the offer. If player two accepts the offer, then the offer is in effect. If player two rejects the offer, then no one gets anything.When Americans play the Ultimatum Game, offers of $2 were rejected half the time, but offers lower than $2 were rejected even more commonly. These findings run contrary to traditional economic theory that says that people should be motivated primarily be rational self-interest and player two should accept the offer of any money, because something is better than nothing.
However, consider the outcomes with a second type of game, The Dictator Game:
Player one is given a certain amount of money (for example $10) and is put in a room separate from player two. Player one gets to decide how much money to offer to player two. There is no opportunity to accept or reject: player two has to accept what is offered.When the Dictator Game is actually played, the amount most often offered by player one was 20% to 30% of the original amount, although the most common offers were nothing or one-half. That is, player one usually gave something to player two, and frequently gave player two the same amount that he/she took for him/herself. Traditional economic theory would predict that player one should offer player two nothing, since all players should be motivated primarily by their own financial interests.
Over the years behavioral economists have replicated or varied these games in hundreds of experiments. They have learned, for example, that in both the Dictator Game and the Ultimatum Game, several factors can influence the degree of cooperation including whether or not the players are anonymous, come from cultures where trading or commerce is common, or (in round robin games) previous participants were generous to them.
Just like the monkeys who reject the cucumber when it seems that they were being treated unfairly, players will often reject offers in the Ultimatum Game that they consider to be unfair. Like the monkeys, they would rather get nothing than submit to an unfair system. Just like the monkeys, baboons, and chimpanzees who feel social obligations to their relatives and friends, players in the Ultimatum and Dictator Games will be more generous with friends and relatives than with strangers, and will be more generous to those who have been generous to them in the past. Although we cannot automatically extrapolate every finding from the study of the behavior of non-human primates or game theory to other contexts, these sources of data suggest that humans are not motivated exclusively by short-term self-interest, but that fairness and cooperation also help drive human behavior.
deWaal, F. B. M. (2005, April). How animals do business. Scientific American, 292, 72-79.
deWaal, F. B. M. (2011). The age of empathy. New York: Harmony Books.
Kish-Gephart, J. J., Harrison, D. A., & Treviño, L. K. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases, or bad barrels: A meta-analytic evaluation about sources of unethical behavior at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1-31.
Jones, J. (2011, August 16). From the archives: Gorilla saves boy. Retrieved from http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/binji-jua-127910608.html
Smuts, B. (2000, December). Common ground. Natural History, 78-83.
Smith, H. J. (2005). Parenting for primates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli expected the worst from others. But in their review of unethical behavior in business organizations, Kish-Gephart et al. (2010) found that those who had a Machiavellian interpretation of human behavior were more likely to engage in unethical behavior.