Chimpanzees are rational, not conformists


Chimpanzees are sensitive to social influences but they maintain their own strategy to solve a problem rather than conform to what the majority of group members are doing. However, chimpanzees do change their strategy when they can obtain greater rewards, MPI researchers found. The study was published in PLOS ONE on November 28, 2013.

Chimpanzees are known for their curious nature. They show a rich palette of learning behaviour, both individually and socially. But they are also rather hesitant to abandon their personal preferences, even when that familiar behaviour becomes extremely ineffective. Under which circumstances would chimpanzees flexibly adjust their behaviour? Edwin van Leeuwen and colleagues from the MPI's for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology conducted a series of experiments in Germany and Zambia to answer this question.

Wooden balls for peanuts

The researchers studied 16 captive chimpanzees at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany (Leipzig) and 12 semi-wild chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a sanctuary that houses more than a hundred chimpanzees under nearly natural conditions in the north-western part of Zambia. Chimpanzees were trained on two different vending machines. A minority of the group was made familiar with one machine and the majority of group members with the other machine. Wooden balls were thrown into their enclosure; the chimpanzees could insert these balls into the machines to receive one peanut for each ball.

Van Leeuwen and his colleagues first aimed to replicate previous research and looked whether the chimpanzees in the minority group would change their behaviour toward using the vending machine that the majority of group members used.

Written By: Edwin van Leeuwen
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  1. The question seems to be: “Do I go for the bigger payoff, or do I stubbornly hold onto what was good for me in the past, but is now obsolete”. In the test, it was the rare minority of chips who wold stubbornly hang onto the past when a better good is available. With human beings, hanging onto the past and moving towards a more productive future seems to be less rare, and is way that the US Congress operates as a whole. Perhaps replacing Congressmen with chimps would be the recommended way to go!

  2. In reply to #1 by Matt G:

    They also have no religion, so they’re TWO steps ahead of us.

    Or two behind, as they’ve yet to reach and get through the religion/myth phase.

  3. Did anyone notice the name Tinbergen at the bottom ? Possibly a relative of Richard Dawkins teacher ?

  4. Interesting work.

    But yours truly isn’t at all surpried to learn that some chimps are lazy; I am!

    It’s a trait we and they share. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

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