Behavioral science: practical jokes are older than humanity

Humor is probably older than humanity itself.

Behavioral science: practical jokes are older than humanity

Humor is probably older than humanity itself. A research team came to this conclusion after analyzing the behavior of the four great ape species that are still alive today.

Orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas also like to play practical jokes with others. The scientists conclude that the prerequisites for humor probably developed in the human lineage at least 13 million years ago.

Playful, but usually also slightly harassing and provocative: Teasing others requires social intelligence and the ability to predict future actions and be able to recognize and assess the expectations of others of the same species. Babies can do this from the age of eight months, even before they learn to speak, as the researchers explain: For example, they offer objects and then quickly withdraw them, provoke people with small rule violations and by disrupting the activities of others.

18 Neck Behaviors

A very similar situation can be observed in great apes, as Isabelle Laumer's team from the University of California in Los Angeles and the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology in Radolfzell reports in the British Royal Society's journal "Proceedings B". Videos of animals in the San Diego Zoo and the Leipzig Zoo were evaluated; there was at least one young animal in each observed group.

"Great apes are excellent candidates for studying playful teasing because they are closely related to us, engage in social games, laugh, and have a relatively developed understanding of others' expectations," Laumer said. In total, the team identified 18 teasing behaviors, most of which were about eliciting a reaction from the person being teased or at least getting their attention. The teasing rarely developed into a game. Many of those who were being teased tried to ignore the bullying; there were hardly any aggressive reactions.

Most of the pranks were committed by young animals; the victim was usually an adult - but only in a few cases was the mother, with whom a lot of time was otherwise spent. "It was common for the teasing ape to repeatedly wave a body part or object in the center of the teaser's field of vision, poke or prod him, stare right in the face, interrupt his movements or pull his hair, or exhibit other behaviors suggestive of were extremely difficult to ignore," said co-author Erica Cartmill from the University of California Los Angeles and Indiana University.

Meaning of playful teasing

According to the researchers, all four great ape species show such provocative behavior. One thing is clear: teasing should cause a reaction such as fright or surprise - but not aggression. Teasing could also be distinguished from mere play in several ways: "The playful teasing of the great apes was one-sided, usually emanating from the teasing animal throughout the entire interaction and was rarely reciprocated," explained Cartmill.

As with humans, the teasing began in relaxed situations, but the similarities were also great in other ways. “Similar to teasing small children, playful teasing of great apes involves one-sided provocation,” says Laumer. One animal deliberately and repeatedly teases another and waits for the reaction; sometimes surprise is an important element. Teasing has a lot in common with verbal joking and can be viewed as its cognitive precursor. The researchers suspect that the purpose of playful teasing could be to strengthen social bonds.

Jane Goodall and other field researchers observed such behavior in chimpanzees many years ago, and playful teasing has now been systematically examined for the first time. From an evolutionary perspective, the similarities in teasing between the four monkey species and humans suggest that playful teasing and its cognitive requirements may have been present in the last common ancestor at least 13 million years ago, Laumer explained. Whether similar practical jokes also occur in free-living great apes and other species now needs to be further investigated.