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Scientific American: Monkeys show "racism."


“Prejudice” among primates is an important survival tactic and may be a significant driving force for evolution.

From Scientific American…

Mahajan and her team also devised a method for figuring out whether the monkeys harbor negative feelings towards outsiders. They created a monkey-friendly version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). For humans, the IAT is a computer-based task that measures unconscious biases by determining how quickly we associate different words (e.g. “good” and “bad”) with specific groups (e.g. faces of either African-Americans or European-Americans). If a person is quicker to associate “bad” with African-American faces compared to European-American faces, this suggests that he or she harbors an implicit bias against African-Americans.

For the rhesus monkeys, the researchers paired the photos of insider andoutsider monkeys with either good things, such as fruits, or bad things, such as spiders. When an insider face was paired with fruit, or an outsider face was paired with a spider, the monkeys quickly lost interest. But when an insider face was paired with a spider, the monkeys looked longer at the photographs. Presumably, the monkeys found it confusing when something good was paired with something bad. This suggests that monkeys not only distinguish between insiders and outsiders, they associate insiders with good things and outsiders with bad things.

Overall, the results support an evolutionary basis for prejudice. Some researchers believe prejudice is unique to humans, since it seems to depend on complex thought processes. For example, past studies have found that people are likely to display prejudice after being reminded of their mortality, or after receiving a blow to their self-esteem. Since only humans are capable of contemplating their deaths or their self-image, these studies reinforce the view that only humans are capable of prejudice. But the behavior of the rhesus monkeys implies that our basic tendency to see the world in terms of “us” and “them” has ancient origins.