Chimpanzees seem to understand competition better than cooperation. Chimps searching for a hidden food prize are better at recognizing clues from a competitor striving for the same treat than those from a helpful observer. The finding, reported in the current issue of Animal Behaviour, suggests that the ability of apes to understand the intentions of others is significantly more limited than that of humans.
One of the biggest questions about ape behavior is whether apes--especially our closest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees--can understand what others are thinking. Experiments have shown that chimpanzees can easily tell whether someone else can see the same thing they do and can even hide things from humans and other chimps. But they're not as good at comprehending helpful hints. In experiments in which a helpful collaborator looks and points toward hidden food, chimpanzees seem consistently unable to get the hint, something that young children and dogs do with relative ease. This has puzzled researchers, because chimpanzees live in large groups and would be expected to have highly developed social skills.
Brian Hare, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, suspected that because chimpanzees in the wild are much more likely to compete with groupmates for food than to selflessly point it out to others, their social skills might be tuned to such conditions. He designed an experiment to test whether chimps were more perceptive when confronted with helpers or competitors. Chimps were given a hint about the location of a hidden banana from either a human who helpfully pointed toward the hiding place, a human who desperately reached toward the hiding place in an apparent attempt to snatch the treat, or a competing chimpanzee who also reached for it.Six of the 12 chimps found the banana more often than predicted by chance when faced with a competitor. With "help" from a collaborator, only three found the food more often than they would have by chance. This suggests, Hare says, that chimpanzee social smarts are keener in competitive situations than cooperative ones.Indeed, says cognitive neuroscientist Marc Hauser of Harvard University, the results suggest that chimps' ability to understand the thoughts and actions of others is very specialized. Although apes are quite good at cooperating in certain circumstances, he says, they apparently lack humans' broad-ranging ability to perceive what others are thinking--especially when they're trying to be helpful.