Task design influences prosociality in captive chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)

Bailey R. House, Joan Silk, Susan P. Lambeth, Steven J. Schapiro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Chimpanzees confer benefits on group members, both in the wild and in captive populations. Experimental studies of how animals allocate resources can provide useful insights about the motivations underlying prosocial behavior, and understanding the relationship between task design and prosocial behavior provides an important foundation for future research exploring these animals' social preferences. A number of studies have been designed to assess chimpanzees' preferences for outcomes that benefit others (prosocial preferences), but these studies vary greatly in both the results obtained and the methods used, and in most cases employ procedures that reduce critical features of naturalistic social interactions, such as partner choice. The focus of the current study is on understanding the link between experimental methodology and prosocial behavior in captive chimpanzees, rather than on describing these animals' social motivations themselves. We introduce a task design that avoids isolating subjects and allows them to freely decide whether to participate in the experiment. We explore key elements of the methods utilized in previous experiments in an effort to evaluate two possibilities that have been offered to explain why different experimental designs produce different results: (a) chimpanzees are less likely to deliver food to others when they obtain food for themselves, and (b) evidence of prosociality may be obscured by more "complex" experimental apparatuses (e.g., those including more components or alternative choices). Our results suggest that the complexity of laboratory tasks may generate observed variation in prosocial behavior in laboratory experiments, and highlights the need for more naturalistic research designs while also providing one example of such a paradigm.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere103422
JournalPloS one
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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