Chimps or children – who is better at sharing resources?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have conducted a series of experiments to investigate how adult chimpanzees and 6-year-old children behave when using a limited resource with another conspecific.

This experiment is suitable for introducing a number of basic concepts regarding sustainability science and the sustainable use of shared resources. Moreover, reflection on the results of these experiments may highlight possible misconceptions of students (and educators?) about the causes of human sustainability issues. Many students and teachers predict that chimpanzees would fare better in this experiment than children, and tend to give reasons such as “Chimpanzees need to live in harmony with nature”, “Chimpanzees live in groups and depend on each other”, or “they need to share resources in their group”, while children “are greedy and selfish”. In fact, humans are a much more cooperative species compared to chimpanzees and other primates, and they are able to coordinate, communicate, and share resources much more easily and fairly among their group than chimpanzees. Humans also depend much more on cooperation with their conspecifics for survival, than chimpanzees.

The experiment can also be used both throughout a unit on Sustainability as well as in a unit on human evolution. In a lesson on sustainability, further concepts regarding shared resource use, user behavior, conditions, and interactions between them can be developed. In a lesson on human evolution, further concepts about the causes of our human behaviors, and the similarities and differences to chimpanzees can be elaborated.

The lesson plan linked here lists a range of possible materials and ways to drive reflection around this experiment, but they don’t all have to be done in one lesson but can be reintroduced later in the unit.

Author: Susan Hanisch

Related Lesson Materials

Climate Change Game

A cooperation game that lets students experience some of the challenges of cooperation in addressing global climate change

Collective Action Puzzle Game

A group game that lets students experience the dilemma between self-interest and collective interest when groups have to work together to achieve shared goals.

Commons game

In a classroom simulation game with changing conditions students develop strategies for the use of a common resource so that the profit for the entire group is maximized.

NetLogo: Two Foresters

An interactive introduction into concepts of ecology, behavioral ecology, and sustainability with a computer simulation of a simple social-ecological system.

Related Literature