What monkeys and grapes can tell us about the latest ITV Wales poll
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
No you did not misread the headline.
No, this isn’t satire either. I’m deadly serious. Well perhaps not deadly. However I am serious.
Monkeys and grapes can indeed tell us something about the S4C poll on devolution.
The poll was for the S4C politics show Y Byd yn ei Le, which is produced by ITV Cymru Wales. It was conducted by YouGov. Its purpose was to examine attitudes towards our nation’s elected chamber exactly 20 years since the day Welsh voters elected the first National Assembly.
It told us many interesting things, but the question I’m going to focus on is how much power people think the institution should have and how our links to our primate relations influenced the answers that were given.
We humans are essentially very clever monkeys.
We share 95 percent of our DNA with chimps. That’s rather a lot.
The main difference is we’ve evolved to have bigger brains. This has enabled us to cooperate on another level. It has given us the ability to develop complex societies. Those complex societies have fostered flourishing in the arts and the sciences that have enabled our species to dominate the globe.
This domination has lulled us into thinking that we are somehow separate from the animal kingdom. We are not.
There is evidence that our sense of morality is wired into our DNA, and we share much of that DNA with other primates. It is something that evolved to help us cooperate in groups.
Monkeys have a keen sense of fairness.
This was demonstrated in a famous experiment by the primatologist Frans de Waal.
He trained two capuchin monkeys in adjacent transparent cages to perform a simple task. Each time they completed it they were rewarded with a piece of cucumber. Each monkey was more than happy with this arrangement.
Then on completing the task again, one monkey was given a grape instead of a cucumber. For a monkey a grape is a far more desirable reward. (It is for me as well as it happens.)
This happened again and again. The monkey who was still only receiving the cucumber became more and more agitated and eventually, in a fit of primal fury, launched his measly vegetable back at the trainer and vigorously rattled his cage. I’d be tempted to launch the cucumber at the trainer myself in the same situation.
We share this sense of basic fairness which allows our society to function at a higher and more harmonious level. When that sense of fairness breaks down it causes friction, discontent, it causes conflict.
We see the grape cucumber dynamic in demands for equal pay for equal work.
Now, this is only a rule of thumb. Analogies are imperfect by definition and I recognise the limitations of this one.
Humans are obviously a lot more complex than monkeys. We are influenced by other things such as cultural factors, ideology, and so on.
I would also like to stress that I’m not sneering at, mocking or knocking the fact that our sense of fairness has biological roots; far from it. I think it’s a good thing to have a sense of fairness rooted in who we are. If anything we should develop a deeper appreciation of our antecedents and the nature we share with them.
But we also see the grape cucumber dynamic at work in the poll commissioned by Byd yn ei Le on Welsh devolution.
People who conduct polls and surveys know that how a question is framed is all-important, as do advertisers, salespeople and marketers.
In America it used to be terribly difficult to sell life insurance because god-fearing Christian wives saw it as betting on winning the lottery jackpot if their husband died; something they could go to hell for. From what I understand, hell isn’t a particularly nice place, so it’s somewhere they wanted to avoid if they could. After savvy marketers began to frame life insurance as husbands continuing to take care of their families after they’d passed away, sales of policies shot up.
In the S4C devolution poll people were essentially asked the same question in two different ways and this had a big impact on the way the question was answered.
They were asked about the preference for the Senedd having various levels of power. The most popular answer was to give it more power at 27 percent.
However, when the same people were asked if the Senedd should have the same powers as the Scottish Parliament 51 percent of them answered that it should.
The Scottish Parliament has more power than the Senedd. It is the monkey with the grape. When we’re told it has a grape, we want one too.
We believe that we deserve to be treated with the same respect as our Scottish cousins. It is not an unreasonable assumption to make.
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