Behavioural research: Monkey business

Chimpanzees are very status conscious, which is bad for innovation.

A new study of chimpanzees and their cultural innovations shows that humans aren’t alone in their attraction to prestigious leaders. It seems that the chimps, like humans, would be more likely to buy a brand-name product endorsed by a celebrity, or read a book written by a retired billionaire. But unlike humans, who are eager to adopt good ideas from wherever they come, new research suggests that chimps rely on high-ranking, female leaders to teach new methods, while they ignore good ideas from low-ranking chimps.

Scientists performed two experiments in which they trained two female chimps to collect plastic pieces, and deposit them in patterned boxes in exchange for food. (They chose females because research shows chimp societies with more female members have more unique cultural innovations.) The two females then tutored groups of chimps to get food the same way.

But no matter the pattern on the box, the groups were more likely to choose the box shown by the older female with higher status. In fact, they chose her box 70% and 90% of the time.

This new research indicates why a group of chimps are unlikely to change their approach to performing a task. Most innovations come from chimps of low rank, who try to avoid power struggles with elder members. But unless the innovators rise in rank, it’s unlikely that their idea will ever be adopted, no matter how efficient their strategy is. And that’s where man surpasses ape. For humans, the ability to innovate is a source of status in itself, which encourages more innovation, the development of technology and economic growth.