Forget nice guys. Bonobos are more fond of jerks

January 8, 2018, 9:55 a.m.
adult Bonobo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa
Photo: Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

For the most part, humans tend to prefer nice, helpful people. Even babies as young as 3 months old can tell the difference between a good guy and a jerk, and they prefer being around the former.

But bonobos are a whole different story. Along with chimpanzees, these African apes are our closest living relative, sharing 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans. Although bonobos are known for being peaceful, a new study finds the apes are more attracted to bullies than nice guys.

Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, led a team studying adult bonobos at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their study was published in the journal Current Biology.

In one set of trials, they showed bonobos animated videos of a Pac-Man like shape as it struggled to climb up a hill. In some instances, a helpful character enters the scene and helps the Pac-Man get up the hill; in others, a nasty character shoves him back down.

After watching the video, the bonobos were given pieces of apple — one under a cut-out shape of the unhelpful character and one under the helpful character. The researchers watched to see which they reached for first.

In another experiment, the bonobos watched while a human actor dropped a stuffed animal out of reach. A person steps in to try to return it, but then a third person moves in and grabs it away. The bonobos then were given a choice whether to accept a treat from the thief or the helpful person.

Just like people, bonobos were able to tell the difference between the people behaving badly and those who were helpful. But unlike people, in most cases they seemed to prefer the jerks.

According to the researchers, it could be that the bonobos look at rudeness as a sign of social status and they merely want to keep powerful individuals in their corner.

For bonobos, consorting with dominant individuals could mean better access to food, mates or other perks, or less chance of being bullied themselves, researcher Christopher Krupenye, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said in a release.

The research supports the idea that a dislike of jerks and a preference for pleasant people may be unique to humans. Scientists say this bias towards nice guys may be the reason humans are able to work well in large groups in ways other species can't.

"Humans might have this unique preference for helpers that is really at the heart of why we’re so cooperative," said Krupenye.

Related on MNN: Bonobos like to help strangers — even when it comes to food