When misfortune befalls another, humans and other animals often empathize and show concern for the suffering individual. If an individual suffers, yet is deemed to be antisocial and cruel, there is an entirely different reaction: We want to see punishment.
From medieval public hangings to the #MeToo movement, people are willing to invest their own time and resources to witness the enactment of justice, or at least what is perceived to be just. Sometimes pleasure is even derived in doing so — what we know of as schadenfreude.
Chimpanzees also incur costs to watch antisocial others being punished, reveals a new paper published in the journal Nature Human Behavior. Like humans aged 6 years and older, chimps want to see just punishment meted out, even if they have to pay for it in some way.
"More often than not, you see younger children 'outperform' chimpanzees, especially in terms of social skills and behavior," co-author Nikolaus Steinbeis of University College London told Seeker. "But here we actually see similarities, suggesting how deeply this desire for watching punishment might run."
The idea for the study came from senior author Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She told Seeker that she had previously researched social emotions and motivation in humans, and now desired to look at "empathy and schadenfreude, and the need for revenge of unfair people, in non-human primates and to compare this behavior to children."
She approached co-author and renowned comparative psychologist Josep Call about the idea. They assembled their team and formulated a unique series of experiments.
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Seventeen chimps from the Leipzig Zoo were recruited for the non-human primate part of the study. The chimps included both males and females between the ages of 8 and 42.
Each chimp was separately brought into a room with a heavy, mesh, sliding door on one side that when pushed aside allowed the chimp visual access to an adjacent room. The experiment began with a human actor either being friendly with the chimp and offering food or teasing the chimp and being mean — preventing the chimp access to tasty snacks.
Another human actor, playing the role of "the punisher" then appeared. The punisher, wielding a stick, pretended to beat up either the friendly actor or the "mean" one, all while the victims cried out in supposed pain. The punishment took place for four seconds in full view of the chimp before moving to an adjacent room, which the chimp could only view if it pushed open the heavy door.
When the "good" person was punished, the chimps often vocalized by emitting worried barks, hoots, and whimpers, as if to protest the unfair treatment. The observing chimps did not slide the door further, indicating that they did not want to see the beating.
When the "bad" individual was punished, however, the chimps were less aroused. The majority were riveted to the action and went to a lot of trouble to push open the heavy sliding door, enabling a clear view of the beating.