Bonobo preferences: dominance over cooperation

1 minute read

An article in Current Biology by Christopher Krupenye and Brian Hare suggests that bonobos may have a social preference for individuals who wear their dominance on their sleeve: “Bonobos Prefer Individuals that Hinder Others over Those that Help”.

This has gotten a good amount of press attention this week, contrasting the bonobos with humans in terms of cooperativeness and prosociality. It’s an instance where the bonobos seem to be acting more like chimpanzees than the usual highly prosocial bonobo stereotype.

Michelle Rodrigues is a primatologist at the University of Illinois who has read the new study in detail and wrote a very helpful summary: “Human infants prefer helpers, but adult bonobos prefer hinderers”.

From the post:

So what do these results tell us? I think Krupenye and Hare have nicely demonstrated that adult bonobos in a sanctuary setting prefer "hinderers" or dominant individuals. However, these results don't hold for the younger bonobos (ages 4-9). And that's where the comparison to humans fall short. We can't compare human infants to adult bonobos, and then conclude that this is a species difference. I suspect that this may be an age difference in both species, though there also may be greater variation depending on culture, personality, socialization, etc.

It is a fascinating question to what extent apes may be enculturated by their exposure to a dominance hierarchy and the behavior of older individuals in their social groups. We know that humans are highly plastic in their development of social preferences. But we don’t know whether the complex landscape of social interactions may have “attractors” that may affect or reinforce cooperation versus competitiveness and dominance hierarchies.