Increasing Respect and Decreasing Hatred

One phrase from chimpanzee research shows how to improve our world.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

People just can’t seem to get along with each other these days. Any sort of disagreement turns into yelling, insults, and even fighting. People show some sort of alternative opinion and other people lose their minds.

In the midst of all sorts of problems and concerns, this all just does not work out well. Our world seems to be turning into a place where no one can have a different way of looking at things without facing major problems.

In our social world, how do we get people to maybe be more accepting? How do we get to where people show at least some respect for other people? If we all have to live together, how do we help make it so there is at least some tolerance for other people’s opinions?

We do not have to agree with each other but we do have to at least accept each other. Because if we don’t, then everything is just going to keep getting worse and people won’t be able to get along at all.

As often is the case with this blog, I think we can get answers from the animal world (or, more accurately, the “nonhuman animal world” since we are animals as well). Studying what gets positive social behaviors to occur more often among other animals can help us find ways of improving ourselves.

In a study involving chimpanzees, Kaburu & Newton-Fisher (2015) found a number of complicated findings regarding how chimpanzees interact with each other. Much of this related to chimpanzees specifically but, as with most studies about primates, there was much that could be applied to other species. But there was one phrase used throughout the study that reflects a great deal of how we all can best interact with others.

Before talking about this phrase, I want to point out that the study was about grooming. And in the chimpanzee world, grooming holds a particularly important place. When out in the wild, chimpanzees often need someone else to get potentially dangerous bugs off them or to tear off burrs or other objects that get stuck on them. Chimpanzees also need to keep their hair from getting tangled or clumped together. Grooming also is the way that chimpanzees show support to each other and show they do not mean harm to each other. Grooming provides a great deal in terms of how chimpanzees relate to each other. In many ways, it is similar to the types of behaviors that we describe as “respectful."

And here is the statement that reflected something useful for all of us: “…the amount of grooming given was predicted by the amount of grooming received." 

This conclusion was almost mathematical in its precision; there was a direct relationship of how much positive social relationship was given based on how much of it was received. If you keep in mind that it was about social behaviors, and not just brushing and picking off bugs, it shows a real specific way to improve our social world.

Now, to fully understand this behavior, it is useful to keep in mind a few things. It was not that one individual reciprocated to another individual directly how much grooming they had received from that individual. It was that the amount given was related to how much was received, regardless of where that social behavior came from. 

These results also did not relate directly to whether the one chimpanzee had particularly positive relationships with the others providing grooming. In at least some of the situations studied, these involved chimpanzees that were in a relationship where others were much more dominant and had much more control over what happened to them. There was no indication that the chimpanzees were content in any way with the relationships; it was just that this social behavior was impacted regardless of any positive or negative response to the relationship.

We often learn a lot of human social behaviors from studying chimpanzees and similar animals. That is because their social behavior is very similar to ours. So, when one study says something about positive social behaviors in the chimpanzee world it is very often something that can be useful in our social world. 

And what you see here is that positive behaviors tend to increase other people's behaviors. Increase respect that you show for other people and that will tend to increase the respect they show for others. What is somewhat new here (or at least an additional point of view) is that showing respect for someone else does not just mean that person might show more respect for you. It means that the more respect you show for someone else increases the likelihood that other people will show respect generally. You may not see the behavior but being very clear in respectful and accepting behaviors (even if you strongly disagree with someone) increases the likelihood they will show positive social behaviors towards others.

This is more consistent with the whole “pay it forward” idea than it is with the idea “if you want respect, show respect”. If you have been shown respect by someone else, actually anyone else, then show those behaviors in how you act towards other people. Use that as a model of how to act towards others. Because if you show positive behaviors towards other people then there is a strong likelihood they will show the same behaviors towards others.

References

Kaburu, S. S., & Newton-Fisher, N. E. (2015). Egalitarian despots: hierarchy steepness, reciprocity and the grooming-trade model in wild chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Animal behaviour, 99, 61-71.