Do chimpanzees prefer cooperation to competition?

A chimpanzee may make a good teammate, according to new research.

Courtesy of Frans de Waal/Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Three chimpanzees pull at the cooperation apparatus, with two others looking on.

Cooperation can trump competition, even if you're a chimp.

Tara the chimpanzee and Borie the chimpanzee made a great team. The partners worked together to retrieve food from a tricky apparatus set up by clever humans to test if they could cooperate.

Tara and Borie had already succeeded a few times when Katie the chimpanzee decided she wanted some of that tasty snack too. 

Katie elbowed Tara out of the way and took her place at the apparatus. But Borie wasn't pleased about the roster change on his team, so about 30 seconds later he got up and left. 

There Katie sat, at an apparatus built for two – solo.

"She went to all this effort to push her way in, and now she doesn't have a partner," says Malini Suchak the human. And that was a problem for Katie because it took two chimpanzees working together to access the food. 

Katie quickly realized she would need a partner. When she looked around, she saw Tara was still sitting nearby. And Katie knew just what to do.

"She went over to Tara, extended her hand, which is a chimpanzee reconciliation gesture," Dr. Suchak explains. "They grasped hands for a minute, and then they embraced. They played for about 30 seconds, and then they both re-approached the apparatus and worked together."

The video below shows chimps retrieving food from the apparatus when it was built for three:

Suchak, a psychologist and anthrozoologist at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., who was studying cooperation among the chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta as a graduate student, says this was one of the more fascinating things she observed during her study "because it was an interesting reflection on Katie's dilemma of having shoved her way in and then finding herself in need of a partner after all."

And this is all very human-like.

Cooperation is thought to be an "anomaly" special to our species, Suchak says, while our closest cousins are often depicted as more competitive brutes. But Suchak's research, described in a paper published Monday in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests otherwise.

Much like Katie's discovery that it was better to cooperate with Tara than compete with her, Suchak found that the 11 chimpanzees in her study cooperated five times more frequently than they competed with each other.

That ratio is significant, Suchak tells The Christian Science Monitor. "That's exactly the same ratio that people say is needed for a human relationship to succeed."

And it turns out that cooperative chimps also deal with some of the same troublesome behaviors that complicate human collaborations.

How do you handle a freeloader?

In an open environment where 11 chimpanzees were free to wander around as they chose and select their own collaborative partners, it's not hard to imagine some individuals would want to hover and snatch some of the food after another team of chimpanzees had done the work. But, Suchak says, "it became very clear that they felt that freeloading was not really an appropriate behavior."

Some victims of this competitive behavior would simply stop working when a freeloader was nearby or protest with bared teeth or a vocal cue. But if a freeloader got a bit more aggressive, sometimes a third party would intervene, Suchak says. "Often it was just getting in between the two chimps that were having the issue. But sometimes it went as far as our alpha male bopped the freeloader on the head once or twice, just kind of sending a message."

One remaining question about freeloading is how it is handled in the wild, Suchak says. Chimpanzee groups are known to hunt together for food and cooperatively patrol the boundary of their territory. But, she wonders, do they punish an individual who decides to sit out a patrol? How do they enforce this sort of cooperation? Those questions will likely be more difficult to answer as they would require study in a more natural, less controlled environment.

Still, Suchak's work breaks new ground in the study of cooperation, says Jingzhi Tan, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University and primate research fellow at Zoo Atlanta (who was not part of the study) explains in an interview with the Monitor.

"They definitely open some doors to have some new ways to look at cooperation," says Dr. Tan in an interview with the Monitor.

One of those doors was to look at just how the group of chimpanzees navigates and reinforces cooperation in a competitive environment.

By conducting the experiment in an environment where the chimpanzees were able to wander around freely, Suchak was able to provide "a framework for thinking about cooperation and competition in concert with one another," says Katherine Cronin, a research scientist at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo, who was not part of the study, in an email to the Monitor.

Both Dr. Tan and Dr. Cronin were particularly intrigued by the control study the researchers conducted, repeating part of the experiment with a newly formed group of chimpanzees to compare their behavior to the well-established group of 11. More studies of cooperation and competition in a newly formed group could help scientists better understand how cooperative relationships are formed long-term, Tan says.

"The researchers make several methodological advances with this work, allowing them to address questions that have been inaccessible in most previous studies," Cronin says.

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