Monkeys – except the top monkey – switch behaviour to conform to local customs

Where humans are in a subordinate position in a new society (new immigrants for example) they usually conform to avoid attracting attention which could be dangerous. They observe, they copy behaviour to try to fit in and thereby ensure their own security in the new environment. All driven no doubt by the instinct to survive. But a conquering human does not bother to conform to local customs – he imposes his own. All humans are clearly capable of both types of behaviour. Whether to conform or not is then entirely dependent upon the individual’s position in the society he finds himself in.

And monkeys are – it seems – no different.

I suspect this holds true for many more species than just humans and primates and am a little surprised that the researchers are surprised at this behaviour.

A new paper: E. van de Waal, C. Borgeaud, A. Whiten. Potent Social Learning and Conformity Shape a Wild Primate’s Foraging DecisionsScience, 2013; 340 (6131): 483 DOI:10.1126/science.1232769

From University of St. Andrews press release:

Noha group feeding on pink corn

Noha group feeding on pink corn

….. In the initial study, the researchers provided each of two groups of wild monkeys with a box of maize corn dyed pink and another dyed blue. The blue corn was made to taste repulsive and the monkeys soon learned to eat only pink corn. Two other groups were trained in this way to eat only blue corn. A new generation of infants were later offered both colours of food – neither tasting badly – and the adult monkeys present appeared to remember which colour they had previously preferred. Almost every infant copied the rest of the group, eating only the one preferred colour of corn.

The crucial discovery came when males began to migrate between groups during the mating season. The researchers found that of the ten males who moved to groups eating a different coloured corn to the one they were used to, all but one switched to the new local norm immediately.

The one monkey who did not switch, was the top ranking in his new group who appeared unconcerned about adopting local behavior.

Dr van de Waal conducted the field experiments at the Inkawu Vervet Project in the Mawana private game reserve in South Africa. She became familiar with all 109 monkeys, making it possible for her to document the behaviour of the males who migrated to new groups.

She said, “The willingness of the immigrant males to adopt the local preference of their new groups surprised us all. The copying behaviour of both the new, naïve infants and the migrating males reveals the potency and importance of social learning in these wild primates, extending even to the conformity we know so well in humans.”

Commenting on the research, leading primatologist Professor Frans de Waal, of the Yerkes Primate Center of Emory University, said that the study “is one of the few successful field experiments on cultural transmission to date, and a remarkably elegant one at that.”

Abstract: Conformity to local behavioral norms reflects the pervading role of culture in human life. Laboratory experiments have begun to suggest a role for conformity in animal social learning, but evidence from the wild remains circumstantial. Here, we show experimentally that wild vervet monkeys will abandon personal foraging preferences in favor of group norms new to them. Groups first learned to avoid the bitter-tasting alternative of two foods. Presentations of these options untreated months later revealed that all new infants naïve to the foods adopted maternal preferences. Males who migrated between groups where the alternative food was eaten switched to the new local norm. Such powerful effects of social learning represent a more potent force than hitherto recognized in shaping group differences among wild animals.

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