Historically it has been thought that awareness of social commitment was a uniquely human condition, and that animals perform social activities solely for practical or utilitarian purposes. Research carried out at the University of Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, questions this concept and demonstrates experimentally in non-human primates, specifically in bonobos monkeys, that there is awareness of commitment and that it is resumed when it is interrupted by an incident.
As explained in a release, the research was carried out in the framework of a population of bonobo monkeys in a wooded area of France. The results were recently published in the journal Science Advances. In the study, the scientists abruptly interrupted the primates while they engaged in a social activity with another member of their community, in order to analyze their reactions.
The finding is that the bonobo monkeys not only return to carry out the activity that they interrupted by the warning signal emitted, but they also look for the same couple with whom they were interacting before the interruption. This “fidelity” demonstrated by primates makes it clear that they understand the commitment made to the other party and that they are willing to honor it.
In the case of human beings, the complexity of social life shows us a large number of commitments that are assumed between two people. From marriage, through labor relations and even in the simple act of apologizing when we have to interrupt a conversation by a phone call, life in society revolves around the concept of understanding that certain achievements or achievements that are obtained collectively they would be impossible to specify individually.
In bonobos monkeys, the primary social activity is mutual grooming. This interaction is widespread among primates, and basically consists of a “cleaning service” that is carried out reciprocally between two animals. Through that simple act of removing parasites, dirt or insects from the body of the companion, the monkeys assume a social commitment and deepen bonds.
The experiments carried out by the Swiss scientists consisted of observing a group of bonobos performing this type of social practice, to later emit a strident signal that managed to disperse the group. The purpose was to check the reactions of the primates after ending the alarm: would they return with the same partner they were interacting with or, on the contrary, would they forget their commitment and look for another partner?
Compromise and consequences
According to Raphaela Heesen, one of the researchers in charge of the study, “we discovered that after a few minutes of interruption due to the warning signal, the bonobo monkeys resume the social activity they had started, doing it with the same partner. We also found that they produce specific communication signals to suspend and resume social interaction, “he said.
Another transcendental point that is highlighted in the research results is that, as happens in human beings, interaction efforts vary according to social scales and roles. This confirms that primates have a certain level of awareness of the consequences of failing to fulfill a social obligation, especially if it is carried out together with a member with a certain weight or leadership within the community.
In this regard, Heesen added that ” monkeys bonobos demonstrate a human-like attitude at this point. It is clear that we do not make the same effort to apologize if we interrupt a conversation with our boss as if we do it with a very close family member. This suggests that bonobos have some awareness of the social consequences of interrupting the joint commitment, “he concluded.
Bonobos engage in Joint Commitment. Heesen R, Bangerter A, Zuberbühler K, Rossano F, Iglesias K, Guéry JP, Genty E. Science Advances (2020).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd1306
Video: University of Neuchâtel.
Photo: Srinivasan Venkataraman en Unsplash.
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