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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Uniting against a common enemy: Perceived outgroup threat elicits ingroup cohesion in chimpanzees

Brooks J, Onishi E, Clark IR, Bohn M, Yamamoto S
PLoS ONE 16(2): e0246869. 


Outgroup threat has been identified as an important driver of ingroup cohesion in humans, but the evolutionary origin of such a relationship is unclear. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in the wild are notably aggressive towards outgroup members but coordinate complex behaviors with many individuals in group hunting and border patrols. One hypothesis claims that these behaviors evolve alongside one another, where outgroup threat selects for ingroup cohesion and group coordination. To test this hypothesis, 5 groups of chimpanzees (N = 29 individuals) were observed after hearing either pant-hoots of unfamiliar wild chimpanzees or control crow vocalizations both in their typical daily environment and in a context of induced feeding competition. We observed a behavioral pattern that was consistent both with increased stress and vigilance (self-directed behaviors increased, play decreased, rest decreased) and increased ingroup cohesion (interindividual proximity decreased, aggression over food decreased, and play during feeding competition increased). These results support the hypothesis that outgroup threat elicits ingroup tolerance in chimpanzees. This suggests that in chimpanzees, like humans, competition between groups fosters group cohesion.


We observed chimpanzees’ behavioral response to outgroup pant-hoots compared to crow vocalizations. Overall, our results were consistent with the social cohesion hypothesis but not with the generalized stress hypothesis. Indicators of stress and vigilance were higher after hearing vocalizations from unfamiliar chimpanzees compared to crow vocalizations but this did not translate into within group tension. Instead, indicators of affiliation and tolerance were higher in the outgroup vocalization condition compared to control crow vocalization condition. Upon receiving semi-monopolizable food, play was higher and aggression lower in the outgroup compared to control condition, indicating a shift towards prosocial strategies in releasing tension induced by feeding competition. These results suggest that outgroup threat directly induces ingroup cohesion in chimpanzees, and importantly, that this effect translates to feeding contexts with high within group tension.

Consistent with previous studies, we found behavioral indicators of vigilance and stress increased. More specifically, in the playback phase there were more self-directed behaviors (self-grooming and self-scratching), less rest, and a lower proportion of lying down in the outgroup vocalization condition compared to control crow vocalization condition. For the latter two this effect decreased for later presentations of the vocalizations, presumably due to habituation to the stimuli (see S1 File). The increase in self-directed behaviors, often interpreted as signals of stress, is likely due to chimpanzees finding outgroup sounds more stressful than crow vocalizations, consistent with a previous study documenting a rise in cortisol following outgroup auditory stimuli in many of the same individuals as those involved in this study. The decrease in rest, through its interaction with trial, is consistent with field research on gorillas where rest decreased following intergroup encounters, but in this case may simply have been due to a trade-off with the relative increase in other behaviors including self-directed behavior and social grooming. The decrease in proportion of rest lying down (as an interaction with trial) may further be interpreted as a sign of vigilance, where chimpanzees remained alert even while not engaged in other behaviors. In the playback phase, contrary to the social cohesion hypothesis, there was a decrease in play in the outgroup compared to the control crow vocalization condition. One explanation is that this was also indicative of increased vigilance or stress. Taken together, the results of several behavioral measures converge on the result that chimpanzees were more stressed and vigilant when outgroup vocalizations were played, compared to crow vocalizations.