In the Eyes of Bonobos, Bullies Rule

By Carl Engelking | January 4, 2018 12:45 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The great Mr. Rogers once shared these words of wisdom to allay our fears in times of great strife: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

But bonobos, our highly social and sexually promiscuous closest relatives, probably couldn’t care less about those helpers. Instead, they’d much rather keep their eyes peeled for the bullies.

Like humans, bonobos are capable of compassion, empathy, kindness and generally getting along as a group. Human infants, studies show, demonstrate a preference for people they observe helping others by the tender age of three months. That’s the prosocial preference hypothesis in a nutshell: Our ability to build a cohesive society depends on cooperation and helping others, so we innately prefer individuals who demonstrate such behaviors. Given bonobos are so closely related to humans, it was thought they shared this same preference.

We may have thought wrong.

In a study published Thursday in Current Biology, Christopher Krupenye and Brian Hare designed four experiments to determine who bonobos prefer: helpers or hinderers?

In one experiment, they played an animation that depicted a happy little circle repeatedly failing to climb a steep hill. In one video, a helper agent (a blue triangle) gives the circle a push up the hill—great success! In another, a hinderer agent (a red square) pushes the poor little circle back down the hill. After viewing these triumphs and tragedies, bonobos chose paper cutouts of the agent they preferred to get a reward. Just two of the 13 bonobos in the trial chose the blue triangle helper, while the rest chose the square jerk.

In another trial, 22 bonobos watched a real-life human dropping a toy. In one scenario, a helper retrieved the toy and handed it back to the butterfingered actor. In the other demonstration, a hinderer came along and aggressively snatched the toy away. Immediately after the demonstration, both the helper and hinderer offered the bonobos a treat. And again, they showed a preference for the person who made life more difficult.

Two subsequent, and similar trials, yielded the same results. Whether animated or human, the bonobos time and again showed a preference for the jerk.

“Our results support the predictions of the dominance hypothesis and raise the possibility that the motivation to prefer prosocial individuals evolved in humans after their divergence from the other apes,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Of course, these conclusions aren’t set in stone. Krupenye and Hare suggest taking this line of research further. A hinderer, for example, may be appealing because their behavior is viewed as dominating a subordinate. Wild bonobos will beg for food from dominants, and females choose the most dominant males as mates. But, as the researchers note, hindering and dominance aren’t one in the same. Future experiments would explore the subtle differences between social and antisocial behavior and the dynamic between dominants and subordinates.

Further, Krupenye and Hare also suggest experiments that test whether bonobos prefer helping, or prosocial behavior, in certain contexts. Perhaps there are times when the nice bonobo doesn’t finish last?

Still, the researchers say their quartet of experiments provides evidence that humans and bonobos diverge sharply in their interpretation of prosocial behavior.

In other words, cheering for the “nice guy” and singing Kumbaya might be a uniquely human preference.

  • Uncle Al

    … Doing what comes naturally.

    Perhaps there are times when the nice bonobo doesn’t finish last?” Socialism implodes after there is nothing remaining to steal, plunder, and cheat. “singing Kumbaya might be a uniquely human preference.” Only when Federally subsidized, or sacrificing everything of value now to be repaid tenfold in Heaven.

  • ridahoan

    Wouldn’t one need to study at least one other primate before coming to the conclusion that we humans evolved the preference for the ‘prosocial’ friend? Otherwise it would seem just as likely that our last common ancestor was like us, and bonobos, for whatever reason (perhaps precisely because they have evolved high sociability), represent the lineage in which this change in preference occurred.

  • John Do’h

    Same with humans. People like the bully or jerk, just as long as someone else other than them is being the primary doormat/ victim. Always tend to happen in the workplace, the guy who lies and cheats gets by. Look at all the alpha males who are getting outed for being jerks to women now… people have tolerated this behavior and women have been attracted to this power (until they become the abused). Look at how the poor whites love Trump, and glorify his juvenile attitude of cheating and picking on non whites and women.

    • ClarkMa

      Big strong males want to take the lunch money away from weak effeminate males…. because they can.
      “Elections have consequences.” – obama

    • ann

      your selective bias is slipping.

  • Jenny H

    I don’t think so. In humans it is MUCH more important to keep on the right side of the bullies. The helpers tend to get shunned by others once they’ve got the approval of the bully.
    I was warned early on in my Teacher Training to “Beware of the ‘Popular Girl’ because she is most likely a bully.” It is not fun being bullied so you’d better suck up to her and always do her bidding,. Tease and bully the outsiders. :-(


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