This bonobo is having a hard time chilling out. All photos by Zanna Clay
You know that one friend of yours who is always willing to talk about his or her drama but the second you've got some of your own, they're all like, "Let's talk about me instead?" Turns out that bonobos, one of the closest-relatives of humans, often have that same exact friend.
A new study of bonobo relations and emotions, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that young bonobos deal with emotions in much the same way that humans do. Bonobos that have trouble dealing with their emotions are less likely to show empathy towards others. Much like humans, bonobos who got over fights quickly were better able to integrate themselves into their social groups and society in general.
As with humans, how young bonobos dealt with adversity often came down to parenting. The study's principal investigators, Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal, spent time at the Democratic Republic of Congo's Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary—where many bonobos arrive as orphans due to the bushmeat industry—observing how juvenile bonobos reacted after minor fights. Orphaned bonobos were less socially competent, more anxious, and were less likely to console their bonobo friends (by touching, kissing, or embracing them) after a fight. We checked in with de Waal about the experiment and what we can learn from it.
MOTHERBOARD: We've long known that bonobos are some of the more emotionally developed primates out there--what's new about this study that we didn't know before?
Traditionally, we look at primate behavior through the lens of adaptation (evolutionary explanations), communication (meaning of signals), or social relationships (my own approach in terms of politics, social cognition, etc.).
Our bonobo study explicitly addresses emotions. As such, it comes up with predictions no one has tested before, such as that individuals who have trouble regulating their own emotions will be less caring in response to the emotions of others. The reasoning here is that one needs to be able to check one's own emotions to avoid that vicarious distress overwhelms oneself. The latter is known in the child literature as "personal distress," and children who cannot get beyond it (i.e. are quickly overwhelmed by their own emotions) are not good at showing concern for others.
We found, indeed, that bonobos who keep screaming and screaming after their own distress are the same ones who show little concern for the distress of others. Those who overcome distress easily pay more attention to others. We also found that orphans, who have not had the benefit of a mother helping them regulate emotions, are much worse in consoling others than mother-reared bonobos. It is almost as if one first needs to have one's own emotional house in order before one is ready to visit the emotional house of another. This is true for children, and apparently also for bonobos.
A bonobo is bitten, then quickly consoled. Video by Zanna Clay
How much do bonobo emotions vary between individuals? Do they each have their own personalities?
There is enormous variability. There is an increasing literature on animal personalities, which are as diverse, it seems, as human personalities. But we found one constant within this variation, which is that orphans reacted quite differently from mother-reared juveniles.
Are bonobo children who "act out" disciplined by their parents in any way?
Good question. This is a major difference with many Western parents, mother apes almost never discipline their children. With fatherhood it's unknown, and males do sometimes discipline unruly youngsters but only once they are over four or five years old. Until this age, however, punishment is extremely rare, and mothers most of the time use a strategy of distraction.
So, if their child does something wrong or risky, they lead them to another place, tickle them, or otherwise make them change their mind. The treatment of ape children is extremely indulgent and tolerant, therefore, similar to the way human hunter-gatherers treat their children.
Is it important that these bonobos learn to control their emotions in order to integrate to society?
Yes, this is the main conclusion of our study, that emotion regulation (self control, managing extreme emotional states) is essential for a well-integrated social life. The individuals who are better at this are also the ones with most friends and with most empathy for their friends.
Do you think this research can be applied to study behavioral and emotional problems in children? Is that the overall goal here?
The more we know about typical emotional development the better, also in relation to humans who have trouble with emotion regulation (e.g. autistic children). To know that certain aspects of emotional development are evolutionarily based is important to build models of typical human emotional development. Instead of looking at this as an issue limited to our species, it is probably rooted in millions of years of primate evolution.