Playing nice has its perks… if you’re a baboon

Nice guys might finish last, but what about nice girls?

Being nice to others in baboon populations may mean a longer, healthier life for females according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University.

Unless there is an obvious cost or benefit for the animal, it can be difficult for humans to understand their behavior. We often try to anthropomophize animals to get inside their heads, assuming they they think and feel the way we do. But the fact is, most of them don’t.

The baboon study is an exception. Researchers including primatologists Dorothy Cheney and Joan Silk and psychologist Robert Seyfarth used different behaviors such as being alone, grunting at other females (a kind of baboon greeting), and approaching and touching other females to measure how “nice” they are.

If you look at a group of female baboons like a high-society circle with a hierarchy, certain behaviors would make sense, such as a female lower down the ranks ingratiating herself to the higher-ups by grunting, grooming, and basically being a kiss-up. But researchers found a different, more interesting pattern. Certain females, regardless of rank in the hierarchy, would grunt at females lower down the ladder with no offspring, and therefore, no real benefit. But it turns out those females were better off; they were approached more often by other baboons, their relationships with others were more stable, and they had less of the stress hormone glucocorticoid. On the flip side, females that were aggressive or “loners” had extremely high levels of the stress hormone.

It’s also worth mentioning that this is not the case with male baboons. Playing nice has nothing to do with fitness or survival; it’s the alpha males that typically live the longest. I guess the term “gentler sex” is pan-species.

Photo: University of Pennsylvania

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