Chimpanzees prefer cooperation over competition when given a choice between the two, proving that the trait is not exclusive to humans, a new study has found.
The finding challenges the perceptions humans are unique in our ability to cooperate and chimpanzees are overly competitive and suggests the roots of human cooperation are shared with other primates, the researchers said. To determine if chimpanzees possess the same ability humans have to overcome competition researchers, including those from Emory University in the US, set up a cooperative task that closely mimicked chimpanzee natural conditions.
They provided 11 great apes that participated in the study with an open choice to select cooperation partners, giving them plenty of ways to compete.
Working beside the chimpanzees’ grassy outdoor enclosure, the researchers gave the great apes thousands of opportunities to pull cooperatively at an apparatus filled with rewards. 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. 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. “When we considered chimpanzees’ natural behaviours, 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,” said lead author of the study Malini
Suchak, graduate student at the Yerkes Research Centre at the time of the study.
“It turns out, they are really quite good at preventing competition and favouring 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,” said Suchak, now an Assistant Professor at Canisius College in New York.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.