Behavioural psychology: Action is a we and not an I

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Behavioural psychology: Action is a we and not an I
Behavioural psychology: Action is a we and not an I

Action is a we and not an I

In the animal world, those who team up with others, hunt together or protect themselves against attackers in this way survive. We, on the other hand, cooperate even if we do not gain any personal advantage from it. Is this a typical human streak or are volunteers also found in the animal world?


We carry the heavy bags of the old lady next door up three floors and we donate blood and money. Sometimes we even go to great lengths so that others can benefit. Throughout her life, for example, the "lady with the lamp" - the nurse Florence Nightingale - rebelled against family and social constraints for the good of others.

But when do we get the impulse to help others without expecting anything in return? Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello from the Max Plack Institute in Leipzig got to the bottom of this. They made babies observe simple situations that adults seemed to get stuck on alone [1].

For example, the researchers were hanging laundry in close proximity to the children and "accidentally" dropped a clip. At first they reached for her, then they looked around for help, but never directly asked for assistance. From this familiar situation-all children had seen their parents hang up laundry-the scientists worked their way to something more complicated: "Accidentally" they dropped an object through a slot in a box.

Amazingly, 18-month-old babies spontaneously offered their help to the researchers and picked up the clip or pulled the said object out of the box. In 84 percent of all cases, the diaper dwarfs were already active before the scientists had made eye contact with them. If the researchers obviously brought about their situation on purpose, the little ones remained inactive.

The results suggest that we are born with a sense of selfless service. But what about our closest relatives? Apparently similar, because chimpanzee children also rushed to the researchers' aid. At least in the simpler clothespin case.

When it comes to food, adult chimpanzees also turn out to be extremely talented helpers

(Alicia Melis) "When it comes to food", says Alicia Melis, also from Leipzig, "adult chimpanzees turn out to be extremely talented helpers. They recognize when they need help themselves or when they need help. They are aware of it own role and that of others" [2].

In Meli's experiments, the animals could only get to a board loaded with food if they pulled on two ends of the rope at the same time. Otherwise, they would simply have torn the rope from its loops. If they couldn't get a hold of both ends of the rope, the test animals would set out to seek help.

If one started to pull the rope alone, things went wrong. However, if you tackled them together, this almost always led to the pleasure of feeding. After initial failures with impatient solo walkers, the animals specifically looked for the helping hands that brought them to their goal. They had learned who was the best helper and that they had to wait for their partner to reach their goal.

However, with adult chimpanzees, food always comes first, then morals. According to a study by fellow researcher Keith Jensen, published in January, our furry cousins only provide help when they see some benefit of their own. Otherwise, their willingness to cooperate will be over very quickly [3].

For example, while they are free to decide on the distribution of food for other members of the same species, adult chimpanzees behave like a coin tosser: even though it costs them nothing, they decide completely at random whether to allow their fellow members to feast or to let them get nothing.

This suggests that chimpanzees don't give a damn whether their conspecifics are doing well, as long as they are not individually affected. Still, their familiar faces tempt us to think they might empathize with others' feelings and situations as we do.

Action is a we and not an I

(Hanna Arendt) Why the chimpanzee children helped Warneken and Tomasello in their experiments is unclear. Did humans and chimpanzees inherit the disposition for unselfish behavior from a common ancestor before they diverged six million years ago? According to Jensen's results, the Samaritan behavior would not have developed until after the separation from the chimpanzees.

Before or after: Compared to our hairy cousins, we have a particularly good sense of compassion. The thinker Hanna Arendt put it particularly aptly: "Action is always a we and not an I."

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