Chimps Agree: A Bird in Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush

Chimpanzees are downright conservative when it comes to trading for better food.

By Jen Pinkowski
May 14, 2008 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:32 AM


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When it comes to trade, chimps are far from venture capitalists. Our closest relatives almost always prefer a sure bet, according to a recent study, choosing value in hand over risk for higher returns. The finding brings us closer to understanding chimps’ trading habits and gives us precious insight into how trade, an essential cooperative behavior, works for humans.

To conduct the study, researchers started with two groups of chimps: one with little exposure to social and cognitive testing and no trading experience, and one with extensive bartering practice and language training. The scientists determined which food each chimp liked best. Then they assigned values to the foods. Finally, they taught the inexperienced chimps how to trade with tokens and food.

The results? When chimps possessing items of medium-high value, such as carrots, were offered high-value items, like grapes, they kept the lesser food. This tendency held true for both groups, despite different rearing histories, suggesting that their disinclination to barter is innate, says Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University, the lead researcher in this study.

The chimps’ risk-averse behavior, Brosnan speculates, is attributable to a lack of language skills. “If one chimp could say to another, ‘OK, you crack nuts while I hunt meat, and then we’ll trade,’ they’d be able to specialize and have a developed economy,” Brosnan says. Because humans can specialize, she adds, we can generate surplus to purchase or barter for better foods from one another.

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