Tag Archives: altruistic

African grey parrots will help their peers without expecting anything in return

New research at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany found that African grey parrots will help their peers even if they don’t gain anything from it. The findings could help inform how altruism and prosocial behavior evolved in humans.

Image credits Found Animals Foundation / Flickr.

Us humans, along with some of our great ape relatives, like to stick together. Part of that involves helping out those in need, even if we don’t get anything back. Such prosocial behavior helps strengthen the bonds between individual members, thus strengthening the group overall, and improving our collective chances to survive and procreate (the end goal of evolution).

It would be easy to chalk it up to our intelligence — it makes sense to help those in need so that they will help us in turn. To the best of our knowledge however, crows, despite being social and intelligent birds, don’t really help each other out. In an effort to find the root of such prosocial behavior, the team behind the new study worked with two species of parrots and observed whether they would offer help to their peers and if so, under which conditions.

Token of goodwill

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” says study co-author Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany.

Parrots have large brains for their body size, giving them quite a fair share of cognitive oomph. As a group, they are known for having excellent problem-solving skills and, as anyone who has one for a pet knows, a great need for interaction and stimulation.

The team worked with several African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws. For the experiment, the animals were placed in paired-up boxes with holes cut into the sides so that each bird could interact with the researchers and one another. The animals were trained to trade tokens with a human in return for a nut. They could cash the token in themselves or pass it over to their neighbor, allowing the other bird to earn a treat instead.

While both species were eager to trade with the experimenters, only the African grey parrots were willing to give the token to their neighbor. They would do so regardless of the relationship between themselves and their neighbors, the team found. The drive to help someone even if they aren’t a friend is a very prosocial behavior, the team explains.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously–in their very first trial–thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on,” von Bayern explains.

“Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

Another very interesting find was that the parrots seemed to understand whether their neighbor needed help or not. They would only pass a token on if their partner had the opportunity to make an exchange (i.e. the experimenter was interacting with them) but no token to give. Otherwise, they would keep it. They would do this regardless of whether their partner was their friend or not, Bayern explains. However, if they were paired up with a friend, the helper would send even more tokens their way.

As to why the African greys engaged in such behavior while the blue-headed macaws did not, the team explains that it likely comes down to differences in their social structures in the wild.

Regardless of why, the findings show that helpful behavior isn’t an exclusive prerogative of great apes, but can (and did) independently evolve in other lineages. Exactly how widespread it is among the 393 known parrot species remains to be seen. There are still many questions to explore, the team adds: for example, what drives these helpful behaviors in parrots? What motivates them? And how can the birds tell when one of their peers needs help?

Personally, I like to think they’re just nice and considerate, despite their sometimes obnoxious and loud nature.

The paper “Parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Neanderthals were compassionate caregivers, researchers suggest

Homo neanderthalensis, adult male. Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1 by John Gurche

Neanderthals are seen as brutish and uncaring, but a new archeological study has shown that Neanderthals benefited from an effective and knowledgeable healthcare system.

Researchers from the University of York revealed that Neanderthal healthcare was uncalculated and highly effective, even though we tend to think of about them as crueler than modern-day humans. The study suggests that Neanderthals were very compassionate caregivers.

The scientific community knows very well that Neanderthals sometimes provided care for the injured, but the team at York re-analyzed Neanderthal behavior and they suggest ‘our cousins’ were genuinely caring of their peers regardless of the level of illness or injury, rather than helping others out of self-interest.

Lead author, Dr. Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the Archaeology of Human Origin at the University of York, said, “Our findings suggest Neanderthals didn’t think in terms of whether others might repay their efforts, they just responded to their feelings about seeing their loved ones suffering.”

The individuals researchers know about had a severe injury or disease, with detailed pathologies highlighting a range of debilitating conditions and injuries. Sometimes, the injuries occurred long before the time of death and would have required monitoring, massage, fever management and hygiene care, researchers suggest.

Researchers analyzed a male around 25-40 years old at time of death that showed a catalog of poor health, including a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders. His degrading physical state would have sapped his strength over the final 12 months of life and severely restricted his ability to contribute to the community. The authors of the study believe he remained part of the group since his articulated remains were subsequently carefully buried.

Dr Spikins added, “We argue that the social significance of the broader pattern of healthcare has been overlooked and interpretations of a limited or calculated response to healthcare have been influenced by preconceptions of Neanderthals as being ‘different’ and even brutish. However, a detailed consideration of the evidence in its social and cultural context reveals a different picture.

“The very similarity of Neanderthal healthcare to that of later periods has important implications. We argue that organised, knowledgeable and caring healthcare is not unique to our species but rather has a long evolutionary history.”

The paper was published in the journal World Archaeology.

Listening to music you like makes you more altruistic

Music is almost ubiquitous in our lives – we hear it in commercials, in the car, on the radio, at the movies, when you go out, when you stay in… we’re quite a musical society nowadays. But we still don’t understand many things about how music affects our bodies and our brains; now, a new study has found that listening to music you really like – frisson inducing music – makes you more altruistic.

Frisson-inducing music can make you more altruistic. Image via Song for the Songless.

If you’ve ever listened to a song and liked it in such a way that your hair went up, you got goosebumps and you felt the chills, then you know what a frisson is. A frisson is a sensation caused by audiovisual stimuli expressed as an overwhelming emotional response combined with piloerection while listening to specific passages in music. Frissons don’t last for very long (usually just a few seconds), and are usually pleasurable and associated with passages of loud, inspiring music.

Hajime Fukui from the Nara University in Japan found that listening to this type of music makes people more altruistic; in order to figure this out, they asked 22 undergraduate and postgraduate students to play the dictator game. Basically, they were given some money, which they were then asked to distribute it to several recipients, who were presented as stylized images of men and women displayed on a computer screen. They were asked to play this game 4 times – after they listened to music they liked, they didn’t like, and after a period of silence.

“Both male and female dictators gave more money after listening to their preferred music and less after listening to the music they disliked, whereas silence had no effect on the allocated amounts. The group to which the recipient belonged did not influence these trends. The results suggest that listening to preferred “chill-inducing” music promotes altruistic behavior”, researchers write in their paper.

Listening to music you don’t like also makes you more selfish. Image via Harvard.

Listening to music can be a highly rewarding experience for humans. However, there has been relatively little research regarding how positive or negative music-induced states affect our behavior. This study goes both ways – it shows that music we like can make us more altruistic, while music we dislike can make us more selfish.

“It is vital to note that music affects an individual’s behavior greatly; preferred music promotes altruistic behavior, whereas disliked music is associated with selfish behavior, and what differentiates these behaviors is the emotional response dictated by the listener’s musical preferences.”

Emotions induced by music are thought to be associated with the action of mirror neurons and the limbic system. The limbic system (or paleomammalian brain) is a complex set of brain structures located on both sides of the thalamus which supports a variety of functions including adrenaline flow, emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and olfaction. Our limbic system is also crucial for our emotional responses. It also hosts the amygdala, which performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The amygdala is also necessary for developing and expressing normal interpersonal trust. A study has shown that when the amygdala is damaged in an individual, that person invests more money with other people who are unfamiliar than do healthy controls; it’s likely that the way in which music excites the amygdala and the lymbic system makes us also trust others more.

It’s also interesting to note that in the experiment, male dictators gave higher amounts than did female dictators regardless of the type of music, relationship to the recipients, or sex of the recipients. However, given the fairly small sample size, this may not be conclusive.

Journal Reference: Hajime Fukui and Kumiko Toyoshima. Chill-inducing music enhances altruism in humans. Front. Psychol., 28 October 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01215