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New Study: ‘Celebrity Endorsements’ Sway Chimps, Too

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Human beings give their attention readily to people who already have it. It doesn’t matter if a guy won fame for his action movies, people will listen to his advice on carbon sequestration, and go out and buy his brand of shoe. That’s not logical, but it does follow a predictable rule, which is that being famous, “cool” and/or prestigious gives you ready access to the minds of others. That bias may have evolved a very long time ago, according to this paper in the journal PLoS One last week. Prestige, it reports, sways chimpanzees the same way it does people.

The authors—Victoria Horner, Darby Proctor, Kristin E. Bonnie, Andrew Whiten and Frans de Waal—taught a novel game to members of two chimpanzee troops that live at the Yerkes Primate Research Center near Atlanta. In one troop, Georgia, a high-ranking female, was taught to put plastic tokens into a polka-dotted receptacle to win a treat; the same routine, except with a striped receptacle, was taught to Tara, an ape nobody, who was younger and low on the totem pole of social rank. (Chimp troops, like military units or Condé Nast magazines, operate with a very clear, harshly enforced pecking order.)  Tara also had no track record of getting other chimps to imitate a new behavior of hers. In the other group, the learners were high-ranking Ericka and low-ranking Julianne (who, again, was also younger and had “no previous experience in introducing novel behaviors”).

As each one went through her routine, others watched and soon learned it. Many decided to get in on the action. Practically, there was no difference between imitating Georgia and imitating Tara, as the tasks and reward were identical. But the chimps much preferred to follow the older, previously successful, high-ranking Georgia: 70 percent of the tokens they collected went into her bin. The difference between high and low prestige was even more marked in the second group, where 90 percent of the tokens went where Ericka was putting hers.

In a social animal, the authors conclude, learning depends on prestige. Among chimps in the wild, they write, innovations probably won’t spread unless they have the equivalent of a celebrity endorsement—that is, unless they are introduced by someone high in prestige.

So perhaps celebrity influence isn’t a peculiarity of our times, but rather a trick evolution has played on us. For eons, imitating the “cool” guy was probably a very good bet for a social primate, because “cool” meant he was doing something right (being the best tracker, being the son of the top female) and therefore getting more food, sex and protection than the average schlub.

Civilization makes fine distinctions between kinds of prestige—we don’t expect Nobel-winning physicists to be good at basketball, or Tiger Woods to play like Sonny Rollins—but elsewhere in the mind, perhaps all prestige is still the same.

That might explain why “cool” isn’t a quality the authorities can control (a fact that greatly irritates the sort of people who put themselves in charge of others’ morals). In her fascinating book Outcasts, for instance, Ruth Mellinkoff quotes a sermon preached in Germany in 1272: “You are not satisfied that almighty God has given you a choice of colors such as red, blue, white, green, yellow, and black for your clothing. No, in your arrogance you have cut your clothes into pieces—here putting red in the white, there yellow in the green, another is striped; this one motley, that dark brown … This arrogance never ends, for as soon as someone discovers a new fashion, all of you must try it!”

At the time, it was soldiers who slashed up their sleeves and wore multiple patches—”pied” clothing, like the “Pied Piper” sported. In other words, while respectable burghers talked up examples of responsibility and piety, their children were more impressed by the medieval European equivalent of “gangstas.”

Chimps live with a single social hierarchy, but people live with two. One is civilization’s official pecking order, which values the mathlete valedictorian more highly than the studly dropout. The other pecking order gives top status to whoever is getting attention, sex and other goodies right now—never mind how. As most of us remember from high school, this intuitive hierarchy is hard to resist. If you had to choose, who would you follow around collecting tokens to win a banana—Angelina Jolie or Carol W. Greider?

Horner, V., Proctor, D., Bonnie, K., Whiten, A., & de Waal, F. (2010). Prestige Affects Cultural Learning in Chimpanzees PLoS ONE, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010625


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