Psychology Magazine

Turn-taking Skills Unique to Humans?

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
In yet another "humans are unique with respect to...." type article Melis, Tomasello and collaborators do experiments showing that humans differ in their ability to carry out long-term collaborative relationships that involve taking turns. I've been reading de Waal's recent book "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?" (which I highly recommend), which suggests that the "unique to humans" implicit in the title of the article of the article may not be appropriate, for the article demonstrates a more 'advanced' behavior in humans only in a specific paradyme involving just the two species. Potential turn taking behavior in other social animals, invertebrates as well as vertebrates, is still a possibility. The experiments:
...gave pairs of 3- and 5-year-old children and chimpanzees a collaboration task in which equal rewards could be obtained only if the members of a pair worked together first to reward one and then to reward the other. Neither species had previously been tested in a paradigm in which partners can distribute collaboratively produced rewards in “fair” ways only by taking turns being the sole beneficiary.
Here is their abstract:
Long-term collaborative relationships require that any jointly produced resources be shared in mutually satisfactory ways. Prototypically, this sharing involves partners dividing up simultaneously available resources, but sometimes the collaboration makes a resource available to only one individual, and any sharing of resources must take place across repeated instances over time. Here, we show that beginning at 5 years of age, human children stabilize cooperation in such cases by taking turns across instances of obtaining a resource. In contrast, chimpanzees do not take turns in this way, and so their collaboration tends to disintegrate over time. Alternating turns in obtaining a collaboratively produced resource does not necessarily require a prosocial concern for the other, but rather requires only a strategic judgment that partners need incentives to continue collaborating. These results suggest that human beings are adapted for thinking strategically in ways that sustain long-term cooperative relationships and that are absent in their nearest primate relatives.

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