Chimps Choose Cooperation Over Competition

March 2, 2017


Buffalo, NY – The latest research by Canisius professor Malini C. Suchak, PhD, challenges the perception that humans are unique in their ability to cooperate, instead suggesting the roots of human cooperation are shared with other primates, namely chimpanzees.

An assistant professor in the Department of Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation (ABEC) at Canisius College, Suchak recently reported on her research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In it, she indicates that when chimpanzees are given a choice between cooperating or competing, they choose to cooperate five times more frequently. 

To determine if chimpanzees possess the same ability as humans to overcome competition, Suchak and her colleagues set up a cooperative task that closely mimicked chimpanzee natural conditions.  They provided 11 chimpanzees, at the Yerkes Research Center Field Station at Emory University, with thousands of opportunities to pull cooperatively at an apparatus filled with rewards.

“While the setup provided ample opportunities for competition, aggression and freeloading, the chimpanzees overwhelmingly performed cooperative acts – 3,565 times across 94 hour-long test sessions,” says Suchak, who is the lead author on the study.    

She explains that the chimpanzees used a variety of enforcement strategies to overcome competition, specifically freeloading, which the researchers measured by attempted thefts of rewards.  Enforcement strategies included chimpanzees directly protesting against others, more dominant chimpanzees intervening to help others against freeloaders, and chimpanzees refusing to work in the presence of a freeloader, “which supports avoidance as an important component in managing competitive tendencies,” Suchak explains. 

“When we considered chimpanzees’ natural behaviors, we thought surely they must be able to manage competition on their own, so we gave them the freedom to employ their own enforcement strategies,” Suchak continues.  “It turns out they are really quite good at preventing competition and favoring cooperation.  In fact, given the ratio of conflict to cooperation is quite similar in humans and chimpanzees, our study shows striking similarities across species and gives another insight into human evolution.”

Suchak was a graduate student at the Yerkes Research Center when the videos of the experiment were collected.  She is now an assistant professor at Canisius and worked extensively with Luke Quarles ’17, an undergraduate student in the ABEC program, to collect detailed observations from the videos.  Suchak co-authored the study, entitled “How Chimpanzees Cooperate in a Competitive World, with five others: Frans de Waal, PhD, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Research Center at Emory University; Timothy Eppley, PhD; Matthew Campbell, PhD; Rebecca Feldman; and Luke Quarles.

One of 28 Jesuit universities in the nation, Canisius is the premier private university in Western New York.