Monkey see, monkey do
Following the latest trends is not just a human trait according to the latest research by psychologists at the University of St Andrews. Now similar social behaviour has been observed in capuchin monkeys.
A study by Dr Marietta Dindo and Professor Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews into the small ‘organ grinder’ monkeys of South America has shown that they are also susceptible to social conformity.
Working with Professor Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre at Emory University in the USA, the scientists have shown that different traditions will spread in different groups of monkeys and exert undue influence on how the animals behave.
In the study conducted at the Yerkes Centre, the alpha male of one group of monkeys was taught to find food behind a sliding door. The alpha male of a second group learned to find the treat using a different ‘lifting’ method to open the same door.
After each ‘expert’ monkey was reunited with their respective group, the majority of monkeys soon learned how to reach the food, adopting the ‘local method’ of their particular alpha male so that two different traditions developed.
Of particular interest to the researchers was that despite a majority of the monkeys discovering the alternative method, they mainly stuck to the method most common in their group.
“This is conformity,” said Professor Whiten. “We know that we humans have a marked tendency to conform – to do what others are doing just because that is what everybody else is doing. That has been assumed to be a result of our species dependence on all things we need to inherit culturally, from language to technology. Our new findings suggest that the drive to copy what a majority of your community do may be a potent and more widespread effect among animals than could have been imagined some years ago.”
The work is now being followed up in Scotland at the ‘Living Links to Human Evolution’ Research Centre of the University of St Andrews, which houses mixed species communities of capuchins and squirrel monkeys in Edinburgh Zoo.
NOTE TO EDITORS:
‘In-group conformity sustains different foraging traditions in capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella)’, by Marietta Dindo, Andrew Whiten and Frans B. M. de Waal (2009) Public Library of Science vol. 4 (11), e7858. This journal offers open access to all.
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