Humans prefer to cooperate, chimps don’t

Perhaps this was one of the critical genetic traits which – in evolutionary terms – helped humans  separate from the apes and power ahead to be the leading species on the planet.  It is not difficult to imagine that a “cooperation” gene or a “motivation to cooperate” gene – if such a thing exists – could have resulted in a number of “downstream” needs (for communication, language, artefacts, complex social organisations, arts and science) which in turn selected for and influenced the development of the traits which distinguish anatomically modern humans from other primates.

A new paper from the Max Planck Institutes in Leipzig and Nijmegen:

Yvonne Rekers, Daniel B.M. Haun and Michael Tomasello. Children, but Not Chimpanzees, Prefer to CollaborateCurrent Biology, 2011 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.066


Human societies are built on collaborative activities. Already from early childhood, human children are skillful and proficient collaborators. They recognize when they need help in solving a problem and actively recruit collaborators.

The societies of other primates are also to some degree cooperative. Chimpanzees, for example, engage in a variety of cooperative activities such as border patrols, group hunting, and intra- and intergroup coalitionary behavior. Recent studies have shown that chimpanzees possess many of the cognitive prerequisites necessary for human-like collaboration. Chimpanzees have been shown to recognize when they need help in solving a problem and to actively recruit good over bad collaborators. However, cognitive abilities might not be all that differs between chimpanzees and humans when it comes to cooperation. Another factor might be the motivation to engage in a cooperative activity. Here, we hypothesized that a key difference between human and chimpanzee collaboration—and so potentially a key mechanism in the evolution of human cooperation—is a simple preference for collaborating (versus acting alone) to obtain food. Our results supported this hypothesis, finding that whereas children strongly prefer to work together with another to obtain food, chimpanzees show no such preference.


  • ► First study comparing collaborative motivation between children and chimpanzees
  • ► Children, but not chimpanzees, prefer collaborative over individual food acquisition
  • ► Motivation might be one key factor in the evolution of human-like cooperation

Science Daily

Researchers from the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the MPI for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen have now discovered that when all else is equal, human children prefer to work together in solving a problem, rather than solve it on their own. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, show no such preference according to a study of 3-year-old German kindergarteners and semi-free ranging chimpanzees, in which the children and chimps could choose between a collaborative and a non-collaboration problem-solving approach. ….

The research team presented 3-year-old German children and chimpanzees living in a Congo Republic sanctuary with a task that they could perform on their own or with a partner. Specifically, they could either pull two ends of a rope themselves in order to get a food reward or they could pull one end while a companion pulled the other. The task was carefully controlled to ensure there were no obvious incentives for the children or chimpanzees to choose one strategy over the other. “In such a highly controlled situation, children showed a preference to cooperate; chimpanzees did not,” Haun points out.

The children cooperated more than 78 percent of the time compared to about 58 percent for the chimpanzees. These statistics show that the children actively chose to work together, while chimps appeared to choose between their two options randomly. ….. Future work should compare cooperative motivation across primate species in an effort to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the trait. …..

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