People have both cooperative and competitive instincts that run deep. As long as people have been around, there have been some situations that require working with others and some situations where you have to put yourself first. There’s a tension between cooperation and competition, but throughout history, both have been necessary for survival.

To learn more about just how deep these cooperative and competitive instincts run, a team of psychologists, anthropologists and animal behavior specialists recently decided to look at how some of humans’ primate relatives, chimpanzees, approach cooperative and competitive situations.

In their experiment, the researchers designed a task that required two or three chimpanzees to pull together to receive a reward. They assembled the task in front of 11 adult chimpanzees, then let the chimpanzees decide how to approach the situation.

There was a tension between cooperation and competition inherent in the experiment’s setup: the chimpanzees had to work together to access the rewards, but the competitive mindset would be to take as many of the rewards for yourself as possible – even if other chimps are doing the work!

This contradiction between cooperative and competitive instincts played out in how the chimpanzees approached the task. Some chimpanzees were more cooperative in their approach, others resorted to freeloading and stealing rewards.

As a group, though, the chimpanzees ended up doing something sophisticated and, one could even say, human-like. That is, they came up with a number of enforcement mechanisms to punish chimps who were taking competitive approaches and incentivize all chimpanzees to play by societal rules.

For example, when chimpanzees caught one of their partners freeloading, they would protest loudly, and dominant chimps would step in to put a stop to what was going on. Similarly, when the chimpanzees saw that one of their cohort had a pattern of freeloading, they would avoid choosing that chimp as a partner on the task.

The authors of the study point out that these responses are actually very similar to the way humans behave under similar conditions. This similarity in how humans and chimps balance cooperative and competitive behavior and enforce cooperative behavior at a societal level shows that humans aren’t unique in their ability to cooperate.

It also shows how ingrained the instincts to cooperate and compete are in humans. Humans have been balancing cooperation and competition so long, in fact, that we’ve probably been doing it since before we were humans – meaning we share this way of doing things with some of our close primate cousins!

Image: Littlejohn