Chimpanzees are better team players than most humans, study finds

Many people think humans are the only primates that work together to problem-solve, but chimpanzees are five times more likely to cooperate with one another than to compete with each other, according to new research published on Monday.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), lead author Dr. Malini Suchak, a graduate student with the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Atlanta’s Emory University at the time of the study, and her colleagues found that chimpanzees seemed to favor working together, despite their reputation for being competitive and aggressive.

In fact, as Scientific American reported, the African great apes were found to work together at a rate similar to that of their human counterparts, and that when violence did break out among the group, it was because one of the members was “not being a team player.” Their findings suggest that humans’ ability to cooperate is actually shared with other primates.

Chimpanzee and child

Chimpanzees work together to solve problems in their communities. (Image Credit: Unsplash)

Earlier studies “describe human cooperation as a ‘huge anomaly’ and chimpanzees as preferring competition over collaboration” while suggesting that researchers had to “‘engineer cooperation’ during experiments rather than acknowledging chimpanzees are naturally cooperative,” Suchak, who is currently an assistant professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, said in a statement.

“When we considered chimpanzees’ natural behaviors, we thought surely they must be able to manage competition on their own,” she added. “So we gave them the freedom to employ their own enforcement strategies, and it turns out, they are really quite good at preventing competition and favoring cooperation. In fact, given the ratio of conflict to cooperation is quite similar in humans and chimpanzees, our study shows striking similarities across species and gives another insight into human evolution.”

Chimps regularly reward teamwork, punish competitive behavior

Dr. Suchak and her colleagues devised a task to see if the 11 chimps at Yerkes would work with each other to obtain a food reward in conditions that closely simulated conditions they would be experiencing in the wild. To begin with, they devised a task in which one chimp had to lift a gate while a second would pull in a tray that was filled with small pieces of fruit.

A second, similar task involved tasked three chimpanzees to work together to obtain the fruit, and in both cases, the apes were given nearly 100 hours to complete the task while another group of chimps looked on. Despite the fact that the experiment provided plenty of opportunities for the chimps to compete with one another, cheat, or simply become freeloaders, the apes teamed up to perform cooperative tasks more than 3,500 times during 94 different hour-long tests.

In comparison, they acted competitively (defined by the authors being physically aggressive to other chimps, bullying them to leave the site of the reward, or stealing the prize without having to put in the work of retrieving it) less than one-fifth as often, according to Scientific American. Furthermore, the researchers observed the chimps using different methods to punish those who engaged in competitive behavior and working together more frequently with those who seemed to be more helpful in nature.

“It has become a popular claim in the literature that human cooperation is unique,” said study co-author Dr. Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Research Center and a professor of psychology at Emory University. “This is especially curious because the best ideas we have about the evolution of cooperation come straight from animal studies. The natural world is full of cooperation, from ants to killer whales. Our study is the first to show that our closest relatives know very well how to discourage competition and freeloading.”


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