A paper released this earlier this week has been first to document spontaneous prosocial behaviour in chimpanzees, finally drawing a line under the question as to whether the welfare of others is considered during choice making in this species; a controversial topic, where such behaviours have been often concluded to be absent in any primate apart from humans (generally from research within the social sciences). This research was carried out at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center by Victoria Horner, and Frans de Waal.
Pairs of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) where placed into testing rooms, separated by a mesh barrier. One individual had access to 30 tokens, divided into two separate colours – all of which could be given to the experimenter in exchange for food. Half of these when exchanged resulted in a selfish outcome in which only the individual handing the token received a reward, whereas the other half resulted in an altruistic outcome where both individuals received an equal reward.
The individual handing the tokens to the experimenter was rewarded regardless. If chimpanzees where choosing under a system driven by selfish interests, there should be a preference towards the choice where only the individual in control of the tokens receives a reward, and if the choice was purely random, each token would be expected to be seen 50% of the time. However, it was found that pairs where significantly more likely to share a reward (displaying prosocial behaviour), than choose the selfish option.
Victoria Hornera, J. Devyn Cartera, Malini Suchaka, and Frans B. M. de Waal (2011). Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences : 10.1073/pnas.1111088108