Image 1 - Children More Cooperative Than Chimpanzees
October 14, 2011

Children More Cooperative Than Chimpanzees

Human children are more likely than chimpanzees to collaborate when solving problems, according to a new European study.

The researchers compared the responses of 3-year-old children in Germany with semi-free-ranging chimpanzees in a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and found that the children preferred to perform a task collaboratively rather than alone, while the chimpanzees showed no such preference.

Human children begin very early to recognize the need for help, actively recruit collaborators, make agreements on how to proceed, and recognize the roles of their peers to ensure success.  Chimpanzees are also cooperative, working together in border patrols and group hunting, for instance.   However, humans might have greater motivation to cooperate than chimpanzees do, the researchers said.

"A preference for doing things together instead of alone differentiates humans from one of our closely related primate cousins," said Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. 

"We expected to find differences between human and chimpanzee cooperation, because humans cooperate in a larger variety of contexts and in more complex forms than chimpanzees."

The researchers presented 3-year-old German children and chimpanzees living in the sanctuary with a task that they could perform on their own or with a partner.  Specifically, they could either pull two ends of a rope themselves in order to get a food reward or they could pull one end while a companion pulled the other.

The task was carefully controlled to ensure there were no obvious incentives for the children or chimpanzees to choose one strategy over the other.

"In such a highly controlled situation, children showed a preference to cooperate; chimpanzees did not", Haun explained.

The results revealed that the children cooperated more than 78 percent of the time, compared with about 58 percent for the chimpanzees. 

These statistics show that the children actively chose to work together, while chimps appeared to choose between their two options randomly, the study´s authors said.

"Our findings suggest that behavioral differences between humans and other species might be rooted in apparently small motivational differences,” said Haun.

Future work should compare cooperative motivation across primate species in an effort to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the trait, the researchers said.

"Especially interesting would be other cooperative-breeding primates, or our other close relatives, the bonobos, who have both previously been argued to closely match some of the human pro-social motivations," said lead author Yvonne Rekers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The study was published October 13 in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.


Image 2: Cooperation is child´s play: children that are presented with a task that they could perform on their own or with a partner show a preference to cooperate. © MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology


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