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Dr. Alicia Melis, University of Warwick – Cooperation and Chimpanzees

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Alicia Melis of the University of Warwick explores the similarities of cooperation between humans and chimpanzees.

Alicia Melis is an assistant professor in the Behavior Sciences Group at the University of Warwick where her research is focused on the evolution of cooperation. More specifically, her work examines the psychological mechanisms supporting human cooperative and prosocial interactions.  She has been widely published on the subject of cooperation in chimpanzees and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig.

About Dr. Melis

Dr. Alicia Melis – Cooperation and Chimpanzees

Other animal species also collaborate to obtain various types of mutually beneficial goals (e.g. territorial defence, hunting). However, it is unclear to which extent the psychology underlying their joint actions is similar to that of humans, or if, on the contrary, humans have evolved unique collaboration skills.

In my research I investigate the capacity of humans’ closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, to solve problems collaboratively. The ultimate goal is to identify those aspects of their collaboration psychology that we share with them and those aspects that are unique to humans.

In a recent study we presented chimpanzees living in Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary (Kenya) with the following problem. Pairs of subjects encountered a locked box with fruits inside. In order to release the fruits, each chimpanzee needed a different tool to perform a specific action. After giving each chimpanzee the necessary tool and letting them empty the box several times, we presented them with the actual test: one chimpanzee had both tools but the partner none. Chimpanzees quickly figured out that in order to release the fruits (and ultimately profit themselves), they first needed to help the partner performing her role. Chimpanzees transferred the necessary tool to their partner and then both together released the fruits. This shows that chimpanzees’ collaborative capacities are more similar to those of humans than previously thought.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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