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Children and Monkey Similar Behavioral Patterns

1/26/2011

In his doctoral dissertation, Peter Verbeek studied the speed at which preschoolers make up after a fight. He used the same methods he used in an earlier study of peacemaking in Capuchin monkeys.

Verbeek, a post-doctoral fellow in the Institute of Child Development, found that the children and the monkeys both reconciled at about the same frequency after a conflict.

One difference between the two was that children sometimes reconcile immediately, whereas non-human primates tend not to have that skill.

Verbeek said reconciliation occurs across primate species within the first five minutes after a conflict.

Generally, reconciliation is when two opponents selectively seek each other out after a conflict.

Verbeek said the specific act of reconciliation can take many forms.

"Chimps will open-mouth or French kiss for reconciliation," he said. "Other species might groom each other or sit close together."

Verbeek's work builds on the studies of peacemaking among non-human primates, begun 15 years ago by Franz De Waal, a researcher and author who worked with Verbeek at Emory University in Atlanta.

"In the past, we focused on the occurrence of aggression," Verbeek said, "and really never looked at the mechanisms of repair to restore peace after aggression."

De Waal said Verbeek's study of Capuchin monkeys was the first study of a New World primate, which include most of the monkeys.

He said there have been studies of 25 different species, all of them Old World primates, including chimpanzees, gorillas and the other apes.

De Waal remembered Verbeek joking about his work with preschoolers.

"He always made the joke that he had kept working with monkeys," De Waal said, "because children have these monkey bars, and in a way they act very much like monkeys."

Verbeek said he observed differences in the type of aggression depending on age.

"With older children, the duration is longer, conflicts become more complex, and more children become involved," he said.

He said 3-year-old preschoolers often fought over possession, but 5-year-olds often fought about relationships.

Professor Nicki Crick, also in the Institute of Child Development, has seen similar differences in aggression among children of all ages, depending on gender.

She said for boys, conflicts are generally over territory or objects, reflecting the dominance hierarchy that is present.

Girls often fight about a relationship slight, Crick said, like not getting invited to a party or hearing two other girls snickering at them.

She also said girls will also use relationships as the vehicle of aggression by giving the "silent treatment" or spreading rumors to talk others into not liking someone.

Verbeek said a common peace-making mechanism among all primates likely evolved over time to keep social groups together and maintain order in a society.

He said there is a debate as to how natural selection encourages a species' intelligence to grow.

The debate is between environmental stresses, like having to cope with ice ages, and social problems, like having to deal with these complex social interactions.

"We know a lot about what they can do to manipulate their environment," he said. "There is a real need to know about social behavior."



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