How Human are Chimps? Chimpanzees Use Conflict Management Techniques

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Social settings breed conflict for humans and chimpanzees: Photo by David Shay

As anyone who has gathered around a water cooler knows, social settings can become contentious. Groups living in close proximity, working together, and sharing resources, can find themselves fighting amongst themselves. Family members argue with one another over chores or responsibilities. Coworkers argue over who was supposed to perform a task. Parents argue with children over behavior and grades.

These may sound like the actions of human beings living closely together, but chimpanzee communities experience similar behaviors. University of Zurich Professor, Carel van Schaik, in examination of the social behaviors of chimpanzees, recently found that chimpanzees actually assign mediators to handle these situations and resolve the conflict.

Policing Behaviors

For years, anecdotal stories of policing behavior within chimpanzee communities have been reported, but never studied or verified. Now, however, in a study published in March, 2012, Professor van Schaik explains researcher’s evaluations of groups of chimpanzees in captivity. This study examined three separate groups of individuals, and noticed policing behaviors present during times of social instability or conflict.

Both males and females within the group were seen engaging in mediating behavior; the alpha and beta of the group were instrumental in ending the disagreement and restoring order to the group. Alpha males and females are the leaders of the group, with betas being the “second in command.”

When asked if the alphas or betas issued punishments to the offending members of the group, Professor van Schaik told Decoded Science,

No, they cannot afford to do so, because their interventions would probably not be accepted. They would therefore take risks, and not be effective as arbitrators.

Human beings follow similar trends in social settings. Parents and teachers settle arguments between children; lawyers, employers, and police officers settle disputes between adults in professional or social settings. Humans assign people to roles through training or education, and this research shows that chimpanzees follow a similar method in assigning mediators during social instability.

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