Thursday, May 20, 2010

Prestige affects chimp behavior

When Brad Pitt begins sporting a fedora, chances are that many other young men will start wearing one, too. Anthropologists define this disproportionate influence as prestige, a trait that has been thought of as uniquely human – until now.

Emory researchers have discovered that chimpanzees prefer to follow the example of older, high-status individuals when it comes to solving a problem or adopting a new behavior. In a study recently published by PLoS One, chimpanzees from two separate groups watched two group mates, distinguished by status and experience, solve a foraging task, each using a different technique. When the observing chimpanzees were given the opportunity to solve the task, they overwhelmingly preferred the technique used by older, higher-status individuals with a proven track record of success.

“Because both techniques were equally difficult, shown an equal number of times by both models, and resulted in equal rewards, we concluded the most copied chimpanzee enjoyed more prestige than the other,” said Victoria Horner, from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory. “If similar biases operate in the wild, the spread of cultural behaviors may be significantly shaped by the characteristics of the original performer.”

The research team also included Darby Proctor and Frans de Waal from Yerkes; Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Kristin Bonnie from Beloit College.

The researchers hope that further studies will shed light on the relative influence of age, dominance rank and experience, all of which may contribute to chimpanzee prestige.

Read more about the Yerkes experiment in Discover magazine.

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