Chimpanzees Cooperate Only When They Have To

New study challenges established data on these primates

By on September 23rd, 2011 13:11 GMT

According to the conclusions of a new scientific study, it would appear that chimpanzees prefer to collaborate and cooperate with each other only when they have to. If it doesn't serve their own interests, the primates will turn away from a task requiring a group to work together.

This is significantly different from the behaviors some individuals in our own species display. Humans remain the only known animals who collaborate with each other, and help others, for the sake of the activity itself, not necessarily for the returned favor.

Such a finding could add another key difference between the societies chimpanzees and humans have built for themselves. When experts learned that chimps can cooperate, a few years ago, many thought that another barrier separating the two species has been removed.

What the new investigation demonstrates is that this is not the case. The primates cooperate on account of the fact that they have a selfish interest in a certain action to turn out the way that best benefits them.

The new investigation was carried out on ranging chimps in a sanctuary in Uganda. The animals were allowed to roam free through the massive enclosure, so that researchers could observe them in conditions as close to those encountered in their natural habitats as possible.

In a paper detailing the new investigation – which appears in the September 7 issue of the esteemed journal Animal Behavior – researchers explain that a chimp may choose to recruit or help a partner in performing a task only if doing so gets them more food than before.

If the reward stays the same, then the primates cannot be bothered to foster connections with other members of their own species. “It looks like motivation plays a very important role in how we behave,” expert Anke Bullinger explains.

“And it gives a hint that even though species might be cognitively capable of doing certain things, they might not show the behavior, because they just don’t want to,” adds the scientist, who is the primary author of the new research paper.

“The interesting thing is that there isn’t much research on the motivational aspects of this. I suspect that motivation plays a role in many aspects of cognition, not just in cooperative behavior, but also in social learning, in communication,” Bullinger concludes, quoted by Wired.

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