Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
Georgia State University, University Relations
Scott Merville, 713-792-0661
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, External Communications
ATLANTA and BASTROP, Texas — Humans often follow what the group does, conforming to their peers in terms of clothing, music or recreational activities. Now, researchers working with chimpanzees have found that one of humans’ closest animal relatives also shows signs of going along with the crowd.
Lydia Hopper, a post-doctoral fellow at Georgia State University and a visiting post-doc at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and her colleagues studied groups of chimpanzees and their food preferences. Using different colored plastic tokens that could be exchanged for food, chimpanzees could either obtain their more preferred food (a grape) or less preferred food (a piece of carrot).
Hopper and her colleagues found that the chimpanzees in the study were more likely to prefer the tokens that were also used by their group mates – copying their peers even if the food they received was not their preferred food. The research was recently published online in the journal Animal Behaviour (formerly known as The British Journal of Animal Behaviour).
Additionally, the chimpanzees’ food preferences did not change over time, showing that the results were not due to a simple shift in individual preferences. The study is the first to show that chimpanzees not only copy the majority, but also go against personal preferences in doing so, Hopper said.
By understanding these behaviors in chimpanzees, researchers can gain a better window on the evolutionary advantages of conformity in both primates, as well as humans – something that historically is thought of in a negative light, she said.
“What we forget is that every day we’re conforming [to societal influence]” Hopper said. “We suggest conformity may be a form of binding and maintaining group cohesion, which is advantageous in not only forming bonds, but also in enabling basic social learning, which allows us to learn things more quickly from others.”
Hopper said the next step is to look at other primates to see if similar behaviors exist, and also to examine what mediates conformity.
The research was funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER award to Sarah F. Brosnan, in addition to funding by the National Institutes of Health for the chimpanzee colony at MD Anderson’s Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research in Bastrop, Texas.
Co-authors in the project included Steven J. Schapiro and Susan P. Lambeth of the Keeling Center, UT MD Anderson, and Sarah F. Brosnan, assistant professor at Georgia State University. The research article is entitled “Chimpanzees’ socially maintained food preferences indicate both conservatism and conformity,” doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.03.002.
The journal is available online at www.elsevier.com/locate/anbehav.
April 26, 2011