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Nawal Abboub
Nawal est experte en neurosciences.

What if collective intelligence was based on our collaborative skills?

February 26, 2024
8 minutes

How does this video allow us to shed light on the origin of our social behaviors? Who wouldn't have reacted that way? Understand that our actions are linked to those of others or that our individual behaviors have The impact on collective well-being is at the heart of the news !

If humans have created such complex systems (languages, social groups, social groups, education, technologies etc.) it is not thanks to the constant confrontation with each other, but thanks to a constant collaboration with each other! Over the last few years, we have put far too much aside the idea that it is our collaborative skills (sharing, equity, cooperation,...) that have been the key to the success of our species, moreover, we are far from being the only one !

While numerous scientific studies have shed a lot of light on human social skills in recent years, many answers could also be provided by studies in monkeys. Indeed, although clear differences exist between these species, cognitive science research has revealed to us in recent years that we have much more in common that we could think so! Apes and humans share many traits, especially in their social behaviors and their relationship to equity or sharing. But to what extent do these behaviors reflect an invisible part of our heritage? Why are some situations intolerable to us? Why do these concepts of sharing, equity, and altruism resonate with us Today and will resonate even more tomorrow ?

To better understand the origin of these concepts, let's decipher together this experience made a few years ago and which made this viral video on social networks!

In this video, the task asked of the monkeys (nasturtium) was quite simple, by returning a rock to the scientist, they each received a reward. But very quickly, we saw that the two monkeys were not receivingthe same reward, especially because they no longer reacted in the same way! And that's exactly what makes the experience (and the viral video) so interesting.

But what happened in this monkey's head to make him adopt such behavior? Why does the initially satisfying reward become totally unacceptable for him?

1. The concept of equity in social behaviors

1.1. The importance of the nature of the reward in the effort made

Let's go back to the beginning of the experiment, for the same task the monkey on the left received a cucumber while the monkey on the right received a grape seed. We all also noticed that at the beginning of the video, everything was going quite well. The two monkeys were quite satisfied until the monkey on the left realized that for the same task the monkey next to him was getting a grape, while he was only getting “a cucumber.” At that moment we all saw him stop being satisfied with his reward by going Until returning The reward to the scientist! Why?

As we can imagine, given this monkey's reaction, it wasn't so much getting a reward that mattered at the time. What really mattered was the difference in worthiness of the reward that there was between him and his neighbor! Whether for the monkeys (or even for us!) In general, grapes have a much greater taste value than that of cucumbers! And in this situation, the monkey on the left very quickly perceived that for the same effort made, he did not receive the same reward, he received “less” than the other.

Who would not agree with this monkey in the end, why receive less than the other for the same action? These monkeys aren't that stupid, are they?

These results show us that for the same task monkeys are sensitive to the value of the reward they receive according to the effort made, but not only that! They are also sensitive to what others get for the same effort! This tells us how highly social skills monkeys, and especially nasturtiums, are endowed with high social skills, since they take into account the other person (and what they have obtained) in their decision. Their keen perceptions of the social environment will thus allow them to adapt their behaviors, for better or for worse!

Taking the point of view of the other person and the value of their reward is therefore at the heart of this “conflictual” situation! But why? Does that mean that the monkeys want to get more than the other? Or does that mean they want to get at least as much ?

1.2. Fairness and sharing rules

To answer these questions, a series of studies were conducted in monkeys (chimpanzees) at the Max Planck Institute in Germany [4], [7]. A small group of monkeys was trained to participate in a sharing game. Researchers came up with this game to better understand How did monkeys make decisions when it came to sharing Some food:

Two monkeys were placed face to face in an experimental cabin in which there were colored strings. The monkey on the right is the subject (the one who activates the rope) and the monkey on the left is the partner (the one who depends on the actions of the subject). The aim of the game was to pull the strings to receive rewards placed in the center of the cabin (Figure 1).

As we can see in Figure 1A, the monkey on the right (Subject), depending on the rope it pulled, could choose to:

(A) receive nothing but distribute a reward to your partner.

(B) receiving a reward and not distributing a reward to one's partner.

(C) receive a reward and distribute one to one's partner.

(D) leave the choice of the reward to your partner.

But what rope were monkeys going to pull most often? Would they favor their partner (A and D), their own benefit (B), or would they prefer a fair decision (C)?

The results of the experiment show that in 75% of cases, monkeys choose the fair decision (C) and share the benefits of the game!

What this study suggests to us is that monkeys don't prefer to receive more than others, but at least as much. So they prefer equitable distribution situations !

But if they are ready to share so much, will they always be ready to share, even if it means having less than expected? In other words, Will they be able to be altruistic ?

1.3. Altruism, a key skill.

To answer this second question, the researchers made the sharing game more complex. They came up with this game to better understand how monkeys made decisions when they had the choice to share their reward! For this, a monkey named Taï was trained specifically to systematically leave the choice of sharing to his partner (as in situation D in the previous game). As long as Tai gave him the choice, the playing partner could choose to pull the strings that allowed him to:

(A) receive a reward (4 treats) and do not give a reward to Taï (0 treats)

(B) receive a reward (3 treats) but give a reward (1 treat) to Taï

What rope were monkeys going to pull most often? Would they keep their reward only for themselves: a so-called “individualistic” choice (A)? or would they prefer a slightly fairer decision: a so-called “altruistic” choice (B)?

Surprisingly, the results of the experiment show that in 50% of cases, monkeys choose to offer one of their sweets to Taï!

These results therefore suggest that the monkeys were ready to be altruistic, even though it goes to against their own interests, in this case, losing 1 treat in the exchange! Moreover, this sensitivity is even higher than since other research has observed that monkeys can even go until refusing to continue with the task when they received a better reward than their neighbor [1], [2].

All this research therefore tells us that what matters for monkeys is not so much to receive more than the other, but that everyone can have at least as much in the exchange! Showing fairness and altruism are skills that are very present in monkeys. and thus suggests that they have social skills much taller than we imagined.

But what is the origin of these “social” regulatory behaviors and for what purpose?

2. Collaboration: a skill at the heart of our social interactions

2.1. Collaboration, an essential factor for the proper functioning of the group.

Many researchers [5], [6] have hypothesized that altruistic behaviors, or behaviors aimed at satisfying equity are indispensable in social groups. They are essential because they contribute in particular to the avoidance of conflict and to maintaining good social cohesion in communities. When situations of inequity appear within the group, numerous negative emotions as well as behaviors harmful to the maintenance and survival of the group are associated with them (e.g. aggression, stress, avoidance, avoidance, refusal to collaborate). This would explain why behaviors aimed at respecting equity have been maintained and favoured over the course of evolution: they create a reassuring climate and promote exchanges and cooperation.

Beyond ensuring a peaceful social climate, these behaviors would be particularly valuable, in particular because they would allow individuals to carry out complex actions, the benefits of which are much greater than those generated by individual actions. In other words, Altruistic behavior carried out by a single individual confers an advantage on the whole group !

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This sensitivity to equity and the existence of altruistic behaviors in monkeys shows us how highly skilled they are in social skills. But what about humans? Are we born with a sense of fairness?

2.2. Collaboration: an innate skill?

To answer these questions, the researchers looked in particular at young children to understand how these skills were already present or not present at birth. And that's how a study showed in particular that very young children of 2.5 years old were already distributing rewards to puppets in a fair manner ! And this, without any adult encouraging them to do so [8]. It would even seem that these skills are present even earlier since other research has shown that as early as 16 months, children preferred cartoon characters that offered fair prices over those who did not. [3]

These in-depth studies with young children offer us solid answers and suggest thatThat young children would already be aware of the importance of equity in shared situations ! This capacity would therefore be present. Very early, in humans.

3. Relying on these social catalysts to strengthen the quality of our environments and cohesion.

What can we learn from this research to better adapt to a complex world, which currently pushes us In our entrenchments ?

This research tells us that these behaviors, which have developed and become more complex with evolution, are deeply embedded in our social codes and group dynamics ! They show us how monkeys, humans even from an early age, have very high social skills. Apes and humans are beings highly socialized and are equipped with skills that allow them under certain conditions to show altruism even when it goes against their own interests.

Let us then become aware of the power of these social “catalysts” and analyze our environments in detail. These are essential skills to communicate effectively, learn quickly, adapt to new situations, solve complex problems! And these very high level skills, inherited from the fruits of evolution, such as empathy and altruism, develop and improve if and only if we take the time to cultivate them.

At a time when our world is being shaken up by numerous changes, let's shed new light on science by recalling the importance and impact of our actions on the well-being of others ! If we want to build the world of today and tomorrow, social cooperation is no longer an option today, It is a necessity. Let's cultivate these skills that focus on others for collective well-being and use them to guarantee ourselves mutual aid, cooperation, support and collaboration. Let us realize that inequity, lack of altruism and individuality massively destabilize our group dynamics. Let us guarantee individual but also collective harmony, in order to feel good, invent, create, and never stop learning, even more so in crisis contexts such as the one we are currently experiencing.


1. The sense of sharing is an essential component in the quality of our social relationships.

2. Equity and altruism are key concepts that ensure the proper functioning of social groups.

3. Humans are not the only ones to show altruism: the great apes do it too!

4. Altruism may be an innate ability, but it must be cultivated and maintained in order to last!

5. Let us keep in mind, now more than ever, that the action of one individual can have an impact on an entire group.

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