For the wild chimps and mangabeys, maintaining and building a strong social network is key to survival. Having friendships and alliances means having support during a fight, help foraging for food, and company during lonely moments. That the animals deliberately choose their grooming partners strategically to ensure those connections underscores the importance of social networks in all primates, including humans.
By recognizing the flexibility inherent in primate cooperation, says Mielke, “we can actually gain some valuable insights into the cognition involved in decision-making, and into what shapes choice in human cooperation.”
While it can be uncomfortable to think about, many of our own social interactions are motivated by utility. That’s not to discount the authenticity of human relationships; rather, it shows that humans are evolutionarily well equipped to form and maintain complicated ones.
“Importantly, these findings show that many of the cognitive tools required to traverse the sort of complex networks of social relationships recognizable in human societies is likely to predate humanity itself,” says Watson. Like the chimps and sooty mangabeys, we have to be strategic about how we interact with others because it’s part of survival.
“Anyone who has been to a networking event will recognize some of the behavior patterns described by these researchers,” he says.
“Everyone wants to schmooze the highest-profile person, but not while their friends are around them or else you won’t get a word in, so maybe you approach them in the drinks line. At academic conferences, observing packs of grad students pursuing a thirsty professor that has broken off from the herd is a majestic sight.”