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Humans are a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, we’re the most social ape around; capable of co-existing with hundreds of other people. On the other, we can be massive selfish assholes.

This is the because we evolved many skills to help us get along; like language. However, many of these abilities can be abused when we’re feeling selfish; like using language to lie1.

The latest example of this was discovered by Dr Esther Herrmann and a group of researchers from various German institutions. They found that people can quickly compare who gets what out of an exchange. However, we often use this ability to make sure we get more than others; even if that results in us getting less than in a fairer exchange2.

It seems we’ll screw ourselves over to screw over others even more. Or, to put in the technical terms, “make irrational decisions driven by social comparison2.”

The selfish ape

These results come from a recent experiment by Herrmann et al. on 10 year old kids in Kenya.

These researchers were curious how the relative payoff of exchange would influence people’s desire to partake in it. So they set up a fairly simple experiment where trays with chocolate pieces were placed in front of a kid. They got the chocolate pieces was closest to them, whilst someone else got the treats at the other end. The kid just had to pick the tray they wanted2.

The experimental set-up, except it was with bits of chocolate rather than ethereal pink balls

Being fairly rational animals, they expected kids to always pick the option that meant everyone, including themselves, got the most chocolate (aka the greedy choice, with 3 pieces for them and 6 for the other participant).

However, in a surprise twist about half of the kids picked the selfish option, where everyone got less chocolate but they had relatively more (2 for them and 1 for the other person)2.

Not sure how much clearer I thought a pie chart would make a 50/50 split

This indicates these kids were using their ability to make social comparisons to inform their choices. Crucially, they were using this power selfishly, even at personal cost.

The selfless ape

The fact that our social abilities makes selfishness possible has a rather interesting implication: less social creatures can, paradoxically, make more social decisions.

Herrmann et al. made this discovery when they were testing chimps and young kids in the same experiment. Neither of them has the social skills of the selfish 10-year-olds, so didn’t make the social comparisons to see who the trade was screwing over2.

Instead, one key factor was influencing their decision: what gives me the most treats. If that meant others got even more rewards, so be it, as long as they got all the apple they could.

Chimps in a similar setup, and the choices they made

The association between social skills and selfishness adds a new perspective to our evolution. After all, at some point in our evolutionary history, we were developing exciting new social skills. However, this would also open up exciting new opportunities to be an asshole.

These are problems our ancestors would have to overcome to make our social lifestyle a success. That said, it’s clear we weren’t completely successful in that regard

On the other hand, this might be some of the first evidence he is smarter than a chimp


  1. Byrne, R.W., 1996. Machiavellian intelligence. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews: Issues, News, and Reviews5(5), pp.172-180.
  2. Herrmann, E., Haux, L.M., Zeidler, H. and Engelmann, J.M., 2019. Human children but not chimpanzees make irrational decisions driven by social comparison. Proceedings of the Royal Society B286(1894), p.20182228.

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