Like people, chimps prefer teamwork over competition

(Credit: iStockphoto)

When given a choice between cooperating or competing, chimpanzees choose to cooperate five times more frequently.

The findings challenge the ideas that humans are unique in our ability to cooperate and that chimpanzees are overly competitive, suggesting that the roots of human cooperation are shared with other primates.

To determine if chimpanzees possess the same ability humans have to overcome competition, researchers set up a cooperative task that closely mimicked chimpanzee natural conditions. They provided the 11 great apes that voluntarily participated in this study with an open choice to select cooperation partners and gave them plenty of ways to compete.

Working beside the chimpanzees’ grassy outdoor enclosure at the Yerkes Research Center Field Station at Emory University, the researchers gave the great apes thousands of opportunities to pull cooperatively at an apparatus filled with rewards.

This video shows chimpanzee cooperation task. All chimpanzees must manipulate the handles at the same time in order for the food to be delivered.

In half of the test sessions, two chimpanzees needed to participate to succeed, and in the other half, three chimpanzees were needed.

While the set up provided ample opportunities for competition, aggression, and freeloading, the chimpanzees overwhelmingly performed cooperative acts—3,565 times across 94 hour-long test sessions.

The chimpanzees used a variety of enforcement strategies to overcome competition, displacement, and freeloading, which the researchers measured by attempted thefts of rewards.

Chimps “know very well how to discourage competition and freeloading. Cooperation wins!”

These strategies included the chimpanzees directly protesting against others, refusing to work in the presence of a freeloader, which supports avoidance as an important component in managing competitive tendencies, and more dominant chimpanzees intervening to help others against freeloaders. Such third-party punishment occurred 14 times, primarily in response to aggression between the freeloader and the chimpanzee that was cooperatively working with others for the rewards.

“Previous statements in the literature describe human cooperation as a ‘huge anomaly’ and chimpanzees as preferring competition over collaboration,” says Malini Suchak, a graduate student at the Yerkes Research Center at the time of the 2011-12 study who is now an assistant professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY.

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“Studies have also suggested researchers have to ‘engineer cooperation’ during experiments rather than acknowledging chimpanzees are naturally cooperative. When we considered chimpanzees’ natural behaviors, we thought surely they must be able to manage competition on their own, 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.”

“It has become a popular claim in the literature that human cooperation is unique,” says Frans de Waal, professor of psychology and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Research Center. “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. Cooperation wins!”

The Living Links Center of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center; the National Institutes of Health, the John Templeton Foundation, Emory University, and Canisius College funded the work that is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Emory University