When it comes to bonobos, nice guys finish last. Researchers tested the animals with different social scenarios and in each, the bonobos preferred to make friends with bullies.
Bonobos, along with chimpanzees, are our closest animal relatives, but humans don’t show quite the same level of shrewdness. Even very young babies can tell the difference between nice characters and mean ones, and they typically prefer the characters that cooperate. (That said, it’s not until age six that they develop a sense of justice.) The study, published this week in the journal Current Biology, is surprising because bonobos are usually characterized as our cuddly relatives, unlike more aggressive chimps. That bonobos, too, want to have powerful allies on their side suggests that our distaste for bullies might be more unique than we thought.
For today’s study, scientists showed 24 bonobos little skits. One was a video of a cartoon trying to climb a hill. Another cartoon enters who either pushes them to the top or shoves them to the bottom. In the second experiment, the animals watched a skit where a human dropped a stuffed animal. Two more people enter. One tries to return the toy, the other snatched it away.
Afterward, the scientists offered bonobos apple pieces hidden under cutouts of the various characters. In both cases, the bonobos preferred to “accept” apple slices from — and therefore make friends with — the more aggressive character.
For bonobos, the researchers say, this aggressive behavior could be a sign of status, and it’s always useful to have high-status friends. This is true for humans too, of course, but we also tend to punish bullies through vengeance or social rejection which provides a little more incentive to be kind — which is a good thing.