Playing Nice Isn't Always a Natural Instinct

A chimp at dinner with bananas.

Did this chimp get his bananas through careful negotiation? Chris Collins/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Collins/Corbis

The change of power in Congress has brought new pledges from Democrats and Republicans to work together. But playing nice isn't easy, and research indicates it's not always in our nature or self interest.

Frans de Waal has spent his life watching some of our closest relatives: chimpanzees. He works at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Georgia. And while chimps often cooperate, he says they also get into disagreements, much like members of Congress.

"The males... most of the time they put their hair up and try to look very intimidating," de Waal says. "They go around and bang doors and uproot trees in the wild, or dislodge stones that they roll down the hill, and generally make a big show of how strong they are."

The shouting actually helps resolve conflicts. Typically, no one bites anyone, and in the end, one side backs down, or sometimes the two chimps reach across party lines and share the banana.

"The males after a fight will come together and kiss and embrace each other and groom each other for the longest time, which calms them down and probably settles their relationship to some degree," de Waal says.

The chimps, he says, are constantly in the business of conflict and reconciling. When de Waal watches politics on television, he sees what he thinks is ape-like behavior.

"We have this very precarious balance between competition and cooperation," he says. "We need to cooperate for our survival; our whole society is built on cooperation. But we are all interested in getting a little bit more than somebody else. And that's why we fight."

It's tempting to think that given our advanced brains we could get beyond this, to think we could sit down and reason out our differences in a calm manner. But in a way, our big brains may make it harder to reach consensus. We're constantly playing mental games of chess that can make finding middle ground difficult.

We're not just thinking "I will fight for this banana." We're thinking, "Maybe I should play hardball and destroy the banana so that no one gets it."

Steven Brams, a professor of politics at New York University and an expert in game theory, says sometimes the logical choice is not to compromise.

"Looking ahead, you might feel you can get something better in the future," he says. "You're looking ahead and trying to develop that tough reputation," he says.

Sometimes Congress gets deadlocked because no one will yield, a situation reminiscent of a game of chicken, which is extensively studied in game theory since what one party decides to do depends on what it thinks the other will do.

"It turns out many of these games are difficult," Brams says. "And I think that's a good explanation for much of the conflict of the world at all levels."

It seems inevitable that humans will argue, so often the focus among people who study conflict is on how to argue more productively.

Howard J. Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, says there are two kinds of conflict: destructive and constructive.

"It's the destructive conflict that kills marriages and kills bills," he says.

Markman has helped set-up an organization, called Love Your Relationship, aimed at helping couples learn to talk without fighting.

Markman thinks in the distant future, thousands of years from now, historians will look back and see that the civilizations that survived were those that learned to manage conflict well. In the meantime, Markman's wondering if he should offer his services to the new Congress.