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Play, Primates, Jealousy, Work, and Losing Deliberately

How playful gorillas self-handicap to lose but win and how this works for humans

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Gorilla children play
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gorillas will invite other gorillas, primate psychologists Joanne Tanner and Richard Byrne concluded, “through gaze and gesture … to share interest in and attention to objects” when they play. They’ll also “share patterns of play… and re-engage after breaks … Sometimes, gorillas assist others in their efforts to engage in collaborative play.” How do they do this? Here’s the part that I like best. Occasionally “older gorillas encouraged younger partners [to continue to play] by ‘self-handicapping’ their own actions.” The older apes will deliberately lose in the game to keep their partners stimulated.

Play, for Tanner and Byrne in their 2010 article, is frequently a triangular or, as they put it, a triadic experience. It’s one that is exercised by two individuals with some object. The play situation they have in mind could be, for example, two individuals with a ball. The two creatures know what they are going to do with the ball—probably a competitive game in which one or the other of them will somehow win by trying to keep the ball. But Tanner and Byrne report that for gorillas, when they play, “winning is not [always] the point.” Just as important is the “continuation of the game.” That’s the reason why some of the great apes will deliberately lose. It keeps the ball rolling.This sort of “self-handicapping” is not common, as far they know, in other apes or animals. Compare dogs. In a game of tug with a human companion, dogs always play to win. Once they have the rope, they usually run away with it.

I mentioned jealousy in my title. What does it have to do with gorilla play? Jealousy is very common in play and it happens when the game ends. A bad loser in a game resents the winner and becomes jealous of the winner’s triumph. The loser may feel a very strong sense of loss as well, just as is the case in jealousy. When you come to think of it the situation in play is very like the situation that breeds jealousy. There’s a competition between two people over an object or a thing (the ball if it’s play, but with workers, for example, competition over a possession, a better job, or even social standing—for lovers it’s competition over a third person instead of a third thing). There’s a sense of loss in jealousy and in play when you lose, and feelings run very high in both.

The gorillas, in Tanner’s and Byrne’s report, seem to understand that the game itself is often more enjoyable than the victory and that seems to be why they will deliberately lose. It’s just to keep the game going. But what about work? The triadic relationship is also the basis of the interaction of humans in most competitive work contexts (offices, especially, but also in labs and academies.) Individuals often become rivals with one another for advancement, for more money, or even just for social standing. The relationship, in the broadest sense, is a jealous one, for people in such workplace triads compete heatedly for dominance. There is usually a loser. While workers may wish their fellow employees well enough, they still aim to excel and to demonstrate this through advancement, standing, and earning. Work in the modern office for the ambitious is, in many cases, a zero sum game. And that is the way it is so often depicted in movies such as Wall Street or Too Big to Fail.

I began with the image of gorillas self-handicapping in games just to keep things going. Does it have a place in the work-place triangle? One of the first things that I learned when I was given a very minor supervisory role in my job was that if I had pressed my work mates to accept something that they did not like, it helped to apologize to them afterwards. That makes no sense at all, except from the gorilla perspective. I also learned that supervisors inevitabley offend the self-esteem of those whom they supervise. When this happens, it is also useful to apologize and to acknowledge their abilities. This apologizing is not a pleasant thing and it is often uncalled for, but it does keep the ball rolling and the office functioning. It does this by mitigating the effects of competitive jealousy.

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Fabius Cunctator
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If Tanner and Byrne are correct about the behaviour of their apes, it says a lot for the role of this strategy of deliberately losing to keep the ball rolling. If animals use it as frequently as do humans, for their own advantage and not that of the competitor who’s allowed to win, it shows that this technique really does have a long history. You can even see it in ancient history. The Roman general Fabius Cunctator (c. 280 BC – 203 BC) was reviled for his canny confrontation with the African invader Hannibal. Fabius allowed Hannibal to keep up his winning streak during the invasion of Italy and concentrated his efforts, with his weaker forces, on Hannibal’s supply lines. The idea was that Hannibal should wear himself with his winning streak. The trick might have worked, but for the jealousy of Fabius’ emulous rival, Marcus Minucius. He wanted no strategic losses and took Hannibal on, face to face. He failed. But George Washington, two thousand years later, did not in the War of Independence. He thought of his tactics as being those of an American Fabius Cunctator.

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