The Evolution of Property

Individual property is a rarity in most species of nonhuman primates, most likely because their lifestyles are not conducive to the maintenance of property. Nonetheless, just because these species do not frequently maintain property does not mean that they lack the propensity to do so. Recent research from the CEBUS lab has shed light on primates' concepts of property. First, we have found evidence of an endowment effect in several apes, similar to that in humans. These individuals prefer to maintain property that they have in their possession over trading it for something better, showing that they and we share biases in common with respect to property in common. Second, we find that chimpanzees and capuchins are quite good at barter between themselves and a human experimenter, and appropriately respond based on the value of the objects. Moreover, chimpanzees will barter with conspecifics, yet ceased doing so as soon as experimenter control was removed. Property concepts beyond possession may be challenging for chimpanzees due to the risks involved when social and institutional controls for maintaining property (e.g. gossip or legal mechanisms) are lacking. By comparing these data in other primates to those data available in humans, we gain perspective on how human property concepts have evolved.

Relevant Publications

Drayton, LA, Brosnan, SF, Carrigan, J, Stoinski, TS (2013). Endowment effects in gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Flemming, T. M., Jones, O. D., Mayo, L., Stoinski, T., & Brosnan, S. F. (2012). The Endowment Effect in Orangutans. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 25, 285-298.

Brosnan, S. F., Jones, O. D., Gardner, M., Lambeth, S. P., & Schapiro, S. J. (2012). Evolution and the expression of biases: Situational value changes the endowment effect in chimpanzees. Evolution and Human Behavior xxx-xxx.

Markell, D., Tyler, T., & Brosnan, S. (2011). What Has Love Got to Do with It?: Sentimental Attachments and Legal Decision-Making. FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper, (534).

Brosnan, S. F. (2011). Property in nonhuman primates. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2011(132), 9-22. doi: 10.1002/cd.293.

Brosnan, Sarah F. (2010). Behavioral development: Timing is everything. Current Biology. 20:3 R98-R99 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.12.009.

Brosnan, Sarah F.  (2008)  The ultimatum game and nonhuman primatesScientific American “Mind Matters” blog.

Jones, Owen D. and Brosnan, Sarah F. (2008)  Law, Biology and Property:  A new theory of the endowment effect.  William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 49. Available at SSRN:

Brosnan, Sarah. F., Jones, Owen D., Lambeth, Susan P., Mareno, Mary Catherine, Richardson, Amanda S., and Schapiro, Steven J. (2007) Endowment effects in chimpanzees. Current Biology. DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.059.

Brosnan, Sarah F. and de Waal, Frans B. M. (2005) A simple response to barter in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Primates 46: 173-182.

Brosnan, Sarah F. and de Waal, Frans B. M. (2004) A concept of value during experimental exchange in brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). Folia Primatologica 75: 317-330.

Brosnan, Sarah F. and de Waal, Frans B. M. (2004) Socially learned preferences for differentially rewarded tokens in the brown capuchin monkey, Cebus apellaJournal of Comparative Psychology 119: 133-139.

Brosnan, Sarah F. and de Waal, Frans B. M. (2002). Variations on tit-for-tat: Proximate mechanisms of cooperation and reciprocity. Human Nature 13 (1): 129-152.