Chimpanzees are our nearest animal relative, according to their and our DNA profiles. That makes them a tempting model for behavioral studies, although much more expensive than mice. They, like us, live in social groups, show violence to other social groups, and have an internal group hierarchy.

Although they form alliances and have some empathy for their particular “friends”, do they really like being team players? Bullinger, Melis and Tomasello of the Max Planck have published the results of a study to see (1). They employed the well-used technique of the subjects pulling a platform towards themselves to get access to food, or a tool, as the experimental methodology. Of course, they had to start off with pairs who were compatible otherwise, well, who knows, nothing might have got done – rather like Congress discussing the debt ceiling.

The study showed that the chimps preferred to work on their own except when there was a distinctly higher payoff for cooperation. The authors concluded that the chimps were happy to use their colleague as a “social tool” and didn’t find teamwork a reward in itself.

The comparison with us was made and the conclusion was that they don’t share our human motivation towards finding teamwork a satisfying experience for its own sake even when there is no reward for collaboration.

I suspect that conclusion has been too easily reached. Most of us work in a group to benefit in multiple ways. If there is no perceived benefit at all, most of us will go our own way with a “me first” attitude only ameliorated by remembering our manners as taught to us while young. Too often, our failure to cooperate lets us down unnecessarily.

  1. Bullinger et al, Animal Behaviour, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.201108.008

Leave a Reply