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Monkeys conform to social norms: Study

Last Updated: Friday, April 26, 2013 - 18:31

London: When in Rome, monkeys do as the Romans do!

The human tendency to adopt the behaviour of others when on their home territory has been found in non-human primates, according to scientists at the University of St Andrews in UK.

The findings could help explain the evolution of our human desire to seek out `local knowledge` when visiting a new place or culture.

The new discovery was made by Dr Erica van de Waal and Professor Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews, along with Christele Borgeaud of the University of Neuchatel.

"As the saying goes, `When in Rome, do as the Romans do`, our findings suggest that a willingness to conform to what all those around you are doing when you visit a different culture is a disposition shared with other primates," Whiten said.

The research was carried out by observing wild vervet monkeys in South Africa. The researchers originally set out to test how strongly wild vervet monkey infants are influenced by their mothers` habits.

But more interestingly, they found that adult males migrating to new groups conformed quickly to the social norms of their new neighbours, whether it made sense to them or not.

"The males` fickleness is certainly a striking discovery. At first sight their willingness to conform to local norms may seem a rather mindless response - but after all, it`s how we humans often behave when we visit different cultures," Whiten said.

"It may make sense in nature, where the knowledge of the locals is often the best guide to what are the optimal behaviours in their environment, so copying them may actually make a lot of sense," Whiten added.

Dr van de Waal conducted field experiments at the Inkawu Vervet Project in the Mawana private game reserve in South Africa. She became familiar with all 109 monkeys, making it possible for her to document the behaviour of the males who migrated to new groups.

"The willingness of the immigrant males to adopt the local preference of their new groups surprised us all. The copying behaviour of both the new, naive infants and the migrating males reveals the potency and importance of social learning in these wild primates, extending even to the conformity we know so well in humans," she said.

The study was published in the journal Science.


First Published: Friday, April 26, 2013 - 18:31
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