Bonobos are more fond of bad people then they are nice, meaning that humans are seemingly unique in their preference for kindness.
In sharp contrast to their more aggressive cousins the chimpanzee, it is generally observed that bonobos are far more relaxed and peaceable. Rather than settling conflict through fighting, the apes tend to settle it with sex, while females hold the power in bonobo communities compared to the males in chimpanzee populations.
Because of this, researchers were interested in whether or not the apes preferred individuals who were kind or those who were – to put it succinctly – jerks, publishing their results in Current Biology. Humans are known to like those who are nice, so it would interesting to see if we share this same social bias with the more tempered bonobos.
It turns out that we don’t. Testing a group of 24 bonobos at a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the researchers got the apes to watch a series of video clips in which some people were being douches to others. They then gave the apes the opportunity to take food from either the nice person or the jackass.
While humans would take the food from the kind person, the bonobos had other ideas and tended to take the food from the jerks. To make sure this wasn’t just by chance, the researchers measured their baseline preferences before the experiment took place and found that after watching the video, they liked the bad person even more.
The researchers think that there might be a very good reason why the apes seemed to show a preference for the jerks, despite bonobos being famous for being generally good natured.
That is because despite there being less conflict and little inter-species aggression in bonobo communities, their societies are still ones based on a hierarchy. The researchers think that the apes might be associating rudeness with that of social status, and thus might simply be trying to keep those who are perceived to be more dominant on their side.
To investigate this further, the researchers carried out another series of experiments on the apes, showing them another sequence of videos. In these animated clips the bonobos watched as one character defends a particular coveted spot from others, repeatedly preventing anyone else from sitting there.
Once again, the bonobos generally preferred the dominant individuals. The researchers think that this is simply a matter of strategy to cope in their communities. The more dominant apes in a society have a better social position and thus better access to food, mates, and resources.
By sucking up to those individuals that we might consider bullies, the apes may be hoping to increase their own standing and benefits. Fascinatingly though, this means that humans are alone within great apes as preferring the good guys, which could help explain our expanded sociality.