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Chimpanzees Follow Actions Of High-Status Individuals

May 20, 2010

New Yerkes-based research shows chimpanzees are similar to humans in mimicking prominent members of society

Media Contacts

Emily Rios, 404-727-7732,; Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709,

Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have discovered chimpanzees prefer to follow the example of older, high-status individuals when it comes to solving a problem or adopting a new behavior. The study, available in today’s online edition of Public Library of Science One (PLoS One), confirms the process of learning and adopting new behaviors is shaped by the social characteristics of the individual performing the new behavior. In addition, the study provides supplemental information to previous studies of animal learning that simply focused on how new behaviors are introduced, not which members of the group introduce them, and makes clear chimpanzees are similar to humans in the way they mimic prominent members of society.

Humans are known to model their behavior after celebrities, politicians and other community leaders. Anthropologists define this disproportionate influence as prestige, which has been viewed as uniquely human. That is until the current study in which lead researchers Victoria Horner, PhD, Darby Proctor and Frans de Waal, PhD, set out to determine whether the prestige of the original performer influenced learning among chimpanzees. The research team also included Andrew Whiten, PhD, from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Kristin Bonnie, PhD, from Belloit College.

For the study, chimpanzees in two separate groups watched two group mates (distinguished by status and experience) solve a foraging task, each using a different technique. When the observing chimpanzees were given the opportunity to solve the task, they overwhelmingly preferred the technique used by older, higher-status individuals with a proven track record of successfully solving such tasks. “Because both techniques were equally difficult, shown an equal number of times by both models and resulted in equal rewards, we concluded the most copied chimpanzee enjoyed more prestige than the other,” said Horner. “If similar biases operate in the wild, the spread of cultural behaviors may be significantly shaped by the characteristics of the original performer,” Horner continued.

In human society, prestige is influenced by multiple characteristics. Researchers are interested in the extent to which the same is true of chimpanzee societies, known to live in societies defined by cultural differences and to differ in their use of tools, communication and foraging techniques. Researchers hope further studies will shed light on the relative influence of age, dominance rank and experience, all of which may contribute to chimpanzee prestige.

For eight decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve the health and well-being of humans and nonhuman primates. Today, the center, as one of only eight National Institutes of Health–funded national primate research centers, provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries. Yerkes-based research is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate quality animal care.

Within the fields of microbiology and immunology, neurologic diseases, neuropharmacology, behavioral, cognitive and developmental neuroscience, and psychiatric disorders, the center’s research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases; treat drug addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases; unlock the secrets of memory; determine how the interaction between genetics and society shape who we are; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior.

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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