When Baby Monkeys Throw Public Temper Tantrums, Moms Often Give In

By Eliza Strickland | March 11, 2009 10:46 am

monkey tantrumHuman toddlers aren’t the only ones who throw tantrums to get their way, and human parents aren’t the only ones who give in, guiltily, to avoid causing a scene. Researchers have found that rhesus macaque monkeys engage in very similar behavior, in which baby monkeys pitch screaming fits until their mothers give in and feed them in order to prevent attacks from irritated onlookers. Explains lead researcher Stuart Semple: “The baby monkeys’ cries are high-pitched, grating and nasty to listen to – not just to their mother but to animals nearby. And we found that the way mothers respond to their crying infants is affected by who is around them at the time” [BBC News].

Researchers observed the behavior of wild monkeys on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. When a baby wanted to nurse but the mom wasn’t willing the shrieks started up, and researchers then monitored the actions of baby, mom, and any other monkeys within six feet. The researchers noted that during a temper tantrum the onlookers seemed bothered and on occasion made threatening gestures, or even chased, grabbed or bit the mother or the infant. Most of the aggression came from monkeys that weren’t close relatives and outranked mom in the social hierarchy. Her relatives proved more tolerant [Science News].

If the baby threw its fit when there weren’t any bystanders, the mother allowed it to nurse only 39 percent of the time, researchers write in the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. But when dominant, unrelated onlookers were nearby, the mother gave in 81 percent of the time. Previous research has found that nonhuman primates pay attention to eavesdropping bystanders, “but this is the first demonstration that communication between mother and infant is affected by an audience,” Maestripieri says [Science News], comments behavioral biologist Dario Maestripieri.

Semple added that while there had been no directly comparable studies carried out on humans, some anecdotal reports suggested that human mothers were more likely to acquiesce to a screaming child if faced with irritated onlookers…. “When I tell any parents of young children about this research, they get it immediately – they’ve felt this kind of bystander effect when their own offspring is having a public tantrum” [BBC News], he says.

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Image: Stuart Semple

  • beach bum

    My husband tried to buck this trend (of trying to shut the kid up before bystanders go beserk) on an AIRPLANE of all places. It was the most excruciating 180 seconds of my son screaming for me, and me stage-whispering, “Just give him to me right now!” while my husband insisted that the 1 year old stop crying and ask nicely first. Finally I grabbed the baby and the horrible noise stopped, and the baby and I laughed together while my husband sulked about the botched “learning opportunity.” UGH! I can relate to the “pushover” mama monkeys!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Heh — given how people can devolve into grumpy and uncivilized hominids on airplanes, you may have made the right call. Otherwise some pissed off business traveler might have come over and bitten both you and the kid.

  • Glenn Holt

    The problem isn’t the audience effect, the problem is putting hominids on airplanes to begin with.

  • http://www.beckybailey.com/ Drew Bear

    I started very young with my son by removing him from a situation if he threw a tantrum. It didn’t matter where he was, if he couldn’t control himself I would stop what I was doing and take him to the car. If he still couldn’t calm down (which wasn’t often) we went home. We didn’t return to what we were doing until he had himself under control. It wasn’t very fun for me for awhile (missed out on fun things) and the embarassment was still there (people do not hesitate to stare at you like you are a bad parent if you don’t quiet a child immediately) but he learned very quickly that if he wanted to do fun things he had to behave himself. Children are clever and opportunistic – I myself remember that I would wait until my mom was half asleep to ask her things because she was more likely to say ‘yes’ just to get me to go away so she could go back to sleep. The good news is they only do things if they pay off. Every good tantrum needs an audience and if he gets what he had the tantrum over, that only makes it a go-to tactic next time, but if you consistenly take away the pay-off and remove them from the source of frustration, tantrums go away very quickly – you have a child that understands that that is not an acceptable way to get what he wants.


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