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Do Chimpanzees Unconsciously Synchronize Their Behavior Too?

Human behaviors sync up when we hang out, and new research shows that other social animals might unconsciously mimic their peers as well.
Chimpanzees Chloe (left) and Cleo conducting a finger-tapping task. (Photo: Lira Yu & Masaki Tomonaga)

Chimpanzees Chloe (left) and Cleo conducting a finger-tapping task. (Photo: Lira Yu & Masaki Tomonaga)

As you’re gossiping with your co-workers today about that interesting article you read online over lunch, your breathing patterns will steadily align, until you are both subtly inhaling and exhaling in sync. It’s one of many examples of unconscious coordination in humans, which scientists believe occur because we are highly social creatures.

If our social nature is behind such behaviors, then researchers would expect similar behaviors from other social animals, like our close relative, the chimpanzee. To find out, a group of researchers from Japan had two mother-daughter pairs of chimps perform a finger-tapping task. In an experimental booth with two LCD screens and touch panels, the chimps were trained to tap rhythmically on the panels, which were set up to deliver a food reward when the task was completed. In the trials with sound, each tap was accompanied by a short beep, so that both booth-mates could hear the auditory feedback of their own taps and those of their partner.

The study, published last week in Nature Scientific Reports, found that while all four chimps were influenced by the beeping sounds, only one of the mothers, named Chloe, altered her tapping movements so that they more closely mimicked those of her daughter, Cleo.

The sample size is much too small to draw any general conclusions about coordination in all chimpanzees, but the finger-tapping test may eventually uncover the behavior in future studies with more subjects. And, at the very least, it demonstrates that this kind of interpersonal synchronization can occur in primates.