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Chimpanzees flexibly adjust their behaviour in order to maximize payoffs, not to conform to majorities

Van Leeuwen, E. J. C., Cronin, K. A., Schütte, S., Call, J., & Haun, D. B. M. (2013). Chimpanzees flexibly adjust their behaviour in order to maximize payoffs, not to conform to majorities. PLoS One, 8(11): e80945. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080945.
Chimpanzees have been shown to be adept learners, both individually and socially. Yet, sometimes their conservative nature seems to hamper the flexible adoption of superior alternatives, even to the extent that they persist in using entirely ineffective strategies. In this study, we investigated chimpanzees’ behavioural flexibility in two different conditions under which social animals have been predicted to abandon personal preferences and adopt alternative strategies: i) under influence of majority demonstrations (i.e. conformity), and ii) in the presence of superior reward contingencies (i.e. maximizing payoffs). Unlike previous nonhuman primate studies, this study disentangled the concept of conformity from the tendency to maintain one’s first-learned strategy. Studying captive (n=16) and semi-wild (n=12) chimpanzees in two complementary exchange paradigms, we found that chimpanzees did not abandon their behaviour in order to match the majority, but instead remained faithful to their first-learned strategy (Study 1a and 1b). However, the chimpanzees’ fidelity to their first-learned strategy was overridden by an experimental upgrade of the profitability of the alternative strategy (Study 2). We interpret our observations in terms of chimpanzees’ relative weighing of behavioural options as a function of situation-specific trade-offs. More specifically, contrary to previous findings, chimpanzees in our study abandoned their familiar behaviour to maximize payoffs, but not to conform to a majority.
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