Like Humans, Monkeys Conform To Social Norms

Instead of accusing people of being like sheep or lemmings, perhaps it would be more accurate to compare the willingness to conform to acceptable social norms that people try adhering to as more monkey-like.

Field researchers from the University of St. Andrews and University of Neuchâtel identified similar tendencies to adopt the behavior of others in non-human primates; copying in hopes of fitting in with new groups. The findings could explain the evolution of the human desire to seek out local knowledge when visiting a new place or culture, according to Science Daily.

Dr. Erica van de Waal and Professor Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, along with Christèle Borgeaud of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, noticed the “when in Rome” attitude while observing social learning in South African primates.

Erica van de Waal is a research fellow in the school of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews, along with her colleague, an evolutionary psychologist, Professor Andrew Whiten. She regularly conducts field research examining learning among groups of wild vervet monkeys. She holds a PhD from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

Vervet monkeys are typically used in comparative scientific models for understanding genetic and social behaviors of humans. Vervets live in small social groups – 10 to 50 individuals – with males shifting among different groups at sexual maturity. When they do, the males will typically conform to the “local social norms” of their new clan.

In the most recent study, hailed as proof of cultural transmission in primates, researchers witnessed a monkey see monkey do willingness to conform among wild male vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) even when the behavior didn’t make sense to them.

The team originally planned to measure how infant monkeys are maternally influenced but instead discovered a powerful influence of cultural bonds beyond familial bonds.

In the initial study, published in the journal Science, the researchers provided two groups of wild monkeys with a box of maize corn dyed pink and another dyed blue. The blue corn was intentionally made to taste repulsive and the monkeys soon learned to only eat pink. Two other groups were trained in this way to eat only blue corn.

New generations of infants were later offered both colors of food, this time neither tasting badly, and the adult monkeys present appeared to remember which color they had previously preferred. Nearly every infant mimicked this dietary color preference.

Additional social discoveries emerged when males began to migrate between groups during the mating season. The researchers found that, of the ten males who moved to groups eating a different colored corn contrary to the one they were used to, all but one switched to the new local norm almost immediately. The one who didn’t switch was considered an alpha and seemed unconcerned with adjusting to new habits.

[Image via Wikicommons, taken in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania by Alexander Landfair]