Chimps Can Be Team Players, Selfless Helpers, Studies Show

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
March 2, 2006

Do you volunteer at your local food bank? Donate blood? Give to charity?

Providing help, without any benefit to yourself, is called altruism, and some scientists have proposed that it is a uniquely human behavior.

But in today's issue of the journal Science, two studies suggest that our closest relatives may also lend a hand in humanlike ways.

In the first study, researchers looked at altruistic behavior in both 18-month-old human infants and young chimpanzees (photo: young chimp).

Various scenes were acted out for the young in which an unknown adult had trouble achieving a goal, like reaching for an object or stacking books.

Ten different situations were presented to 24 infants and three human-reared chimpanzees.

As a control, the same tasks were also done with no indication from the adults that they were having problems.

The results showed that almost all of the children—22 out of 24—helped at least once and did so almost immediately.

The chimps demonstrated similar, though less robust motivation.

They helped in all five tasks involving reaching but not in more complex situations, like those involving physical obstacles.

The researchers believe both children and chimps are willing to help but that they differ in their abilities to interpret when help is needed.

"It's been claimed chimpanzees act mainly for their own ends, but in our experiment there was no reward, and they still helped," said Felix Warneken, study co-author.

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