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Cambridge University Science Magazine
The study was conducted in two parts: the subjects were first presented with two boards of food: bananas for the chimps and gummy frogs for the children. The subject could reach one of the boards by pulling on both ends of a rope themselves. To reach the second board, however, they required a partner in a neighbouring room to pull on the other end of the rope. The children or chimps were allowed access to only one board, but were free to choose which. In this scenario, the chimpanzees chose to collaborate only 58% of the time, which is not significantly different from chance, whereas the children showed a significant preference for working together, choosing to do so 78% of the time.

In that experiment, however, the partner always received the food reward regardless of whether or not they pulled on a rope. The researchers therefore wondered whether the children were actually choosing to avoid a decision that caused their partner to get something for doing nothing. To test this, they set up a second study in which the subject child never saw their partner receive a reward. The children still chose to work together 81% of the time, confirming the strong preference for collaboration seen in the first study.

Chimps possess much of the cognitive ability required for cooperation and do work together at times, as they have been observed carrying out border patrols and hunting in groups. The results of this study may therefore be due to a difference in motivation to cooperate, with humans simply having more of a preference for working together. The development of this preference may have been one of the initial steps in the evolution of human collaboration, which eventually led to the establishment of our highly complex society. Future work will focus on other primates, such as the bonobo, to further elucidate the evolutionary history of cooperation.

Written by Catherine Moir