Data from Human children but not chimpanzees make irrational decisions driven by social comparison

Human evolutionary success is often argued to be rooted in specialized social skills and motivations that result in more prosocial, rational and cooperative decisions. One manifestation of human ultra-sociality is the tendency to engage in social comparison. While social comparison studies typically focus on cooperative behaviour and emphasize concern for fairness and equality, here we investigate the competitive dimension of social comparison: a preference for getting more than others, expressed in a willingness to maximize relative payoff at the cost of absolute payoff. Chimpanzees and human children (5–6- and 9–10-year-olds) could decide between an option that maximized their absolute payoff (but put their partner at an advantage) and an option that maximized their relative payoff (but decreased their own and their partner's payoff). Results show that, in contrast to chimpanzees and young children, who consistently selected the rational and payoff-maximizing option, older children paid a cost to reduce their partner's payoff to a level below their own. This finding demonstrates that uniquely human social skills and motivations do not necessarily lead to more prosocial, rational and cooperative decision-making.