Culture

Feeling Down? Watching This Will Help

Two white-headed capuchin monkeys (also known as the white-faced capuchin or white-throated capuchin) on Gorgona island, off Colombia's Pacific coast. i i

Two white-headed capuchin monkeys (also known as the white-faced capuchin or white-throated capuchin) on Gorgona island, off Colombia's Pacific coast. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Two white-headed capuchin monkeys (also known as the white-faced capuchin or white-throated capuchin) on Gorgona island, off Colombia's Pacific coast.

Two white-headed capuchin monkeys (also known as the white-faced capuchin or white-throated capuchin) on Gorgona island, off Colombia's Pacific coast.

AFP/Getty Images

Every now and then, just once in a while, really, someone asks me to do something unexpected and a little bit onerous, something I feel I shouldn't have to do, and I catch myself muttering: "But that's unfair!"

Then, in the next moment, I do two things.

I vow never to say it again. It's too much like a whine and I'm not a whiner. Anyway, why should I, a grown-up, after all, expect fairness to be a part of my every hour and every day?

Next, I re-watch a favorite video clip, one that stars two capuchin monkeys. It never fails to recalibrate my mood, changing it for the better. Here, see for yourself:

YouTube

As the well-known primatologist Frans de Waal can be heard explaining in that clip — or with a bit more detail in the one that follows this paragraph — capuchin monkeys "get" unfairness. In the filmed experiment, one of the monkeys is originally quite satisfied with a cucumber reward for carrying out a task. But the animal quickly becomes piqued when a second monkey is given a vastly preferable grape reward for carrying out the exact same task.

YouTube

The piqued monkey, in a nonhuman-primate sort of way that looks pretty sophisticated, grasps the situation's unfairness. And it's not just this capuchin monkey, but others as well, as explained by Sarah Brosnan and de Waal in their article from 2003 called "Monkeys reject unequal pay.").

Watching those two monkeys in the video, I feel it's OK to be a little less hard on myself for any verbal outbursts about unfairness — maybe it's a primate thing to react in a peeved way when our expectations of fairness are violated.

Of course, the human world contains genuinely significant injustices — too many of them. Such inequities are no laughing matter. But I'm not thinking about those here; I mean only the small injustices we all experience on occasion.

And in that context, watching those capuchins makes me laugh, and helps me to get over myself.


Barbara's most recent book on animals will be released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.