Bonobos May Seek Powerful Allies Over Congenial Cooperation

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

According to developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, cooperation, in terms of our ability to work towards a common and intentional goal, is what makes humans unique from other nonhuman animals. Generally speaking, we prefer those who express reciprocity, kindness, and mutual exchange. Although characteristics like empathy and cooperation have been exhibited by chimpanzees, a new study on bonobos proposes that our primate siblings might actually be more interested in the mischief maker who benefits from decisively hampering others.

Scientists from Duke University conducted a variety of visual experiments on a group of bonobos including showing them videos ranging from a Pac-Man animation to a skit acted out by humans. In all of their trials, they found that the bonobos repeatedly chose the character that was somehow thwarting the other from achieving its goals or attaining its desired outcome. “The researchers say there may be a good reason for these puzzling results. It could be that bonobos interpret rudeness as a sign of social status and are simply trying to keep dominant individuals on their side. In other words, it pays to have powerful allies.” It’s unclear as to exactly why bonobos choose this behavior as more appealing or acceptable, but being a part of a strong female alliance definitely helps.