Monkeys want to fit in just as much as humans do

Humans are known to change their behavior to fit in — particularly when interacting with an unfamiliar culture — but it wasn't known whether this fickleness was an evolved survival instinct or one of the quirky byproducts of our intelligence. Well, based on the behavior of male vervet monkeys, it appears the tendency to conform is hardly limited to humans.

Researchers at the University of St. Andrews and the University of Neuchâtel provided South African wild populations of these monkeys with a steady diet of corn. Half of the corn was dyed pink and the other half dyed blue, with one of the two colors specifically treated so that it tasted disgusting — exactly which color varied from population to population. The researchers initially wanted to see how much baby monkeys mimicked their mothers. So, if a baby monkey's mother had learned to hate pink corn, the baby would follow its mother's lead and only eat blue corn, even when presented with corn that tasted fine regardless of color.

That's an interesting finding in and of itself, but things took an unexpected, intriguing turn when ten male monkeys started migrating from a population that had been taught to prefer one color of corn to another group that preferred the other color. Despite their established, well-documented aversion for one type of corn, nine out of the ten monkeys instantly switched their corn preference to fit in with their new environment. The lone exception, according to the researchers, kept eating the more familiar color as part of a larger effort to set itself up as the dominant monkey, one that didn't have to worry about what anyone else thought.

Professor Andrew Whiten suggests that this quickness to conform may well be a finely honed survival instinct, in which the males trust that the monkeys in their new environment know what they are doing:

"As the saying goes, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'. Our findings suggest that a willingness to conform to what all those around you are doing when you visit a different culture is a disposition shared with other primates. The males' fickleness is certainly a striking discovery. At first sight their willingness to conform to local norms may seem a rather mindless response – but after all, it's how we humans often behave when we visit different cultures. It may make sense in nature, where the knowledge of the locals is often the best guide to what are the optimal behaviors in their environment, so copying them may actually make a lot of sense."

For more, check out Science.

Image by fwooper on Flickr.