A Discussion on Prosocial Behavior

IMG_0307One of the perks of being a student at UC Berkeley is the opportunity to attend talks by renowned researchers and experts in various fields. Last week on March 9, I attended Professor Frans de Waal’s talk on “Prosocial Primates.” Professor de Waal is listed as one of Times’ most influential people, and he has authored numerous papers and books about empathy and cooperation among primates. As I am currently taking the Psychology of Human Happiness class with Professor Dacher Keltner and topics of empathy, compassion, awe, gratitude, and social interactions are a staple of the course, I was excited for the talk and arrived with a friend before the 2:30pm start time in Sibley Auditorium.

Interestingly, so did a couple hundred other students, faculty, and community members. It was a fully packed auditorium, with lots of people standing and sitting on the sides. My friend and I sat on the left side of Sibley Auditorium, and it turned out to be both comfortable and a great vantage point.


During the talk, Professor de Waal shared how research on aggression led to him noticing reconciliatory behavior and conflict resolution following hostile engagements. Reconciliation refers to a friendly reunion between former opponents not long after a conflict, and Professor de Waal showed examples of chimps kissing and embracing each other after acts of aggression, as well as politicians shaking hands after tense situations. They’ve also begun observing team dynamics in the operating room, a situation in which smooth group interactions and reconciliation are extremely important.

From conflict resolution, the talk transitioned into a discussion of empathy and cooperation. Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It has both a cognitive component of perspective taking, and an emotional component of tuning into another’s feelings. Empathy is a key ingredient in perceiving someone else’s needs and engaging in targeted helping. A fun way to test for empathy is to see how long it takes before you yawn, when you see someone else yawning:

Chimpanzees in novel situations requiring cooperation are remarkably astute at figuring out what they need to do to (cooperate!) in order to secure the food rewards. They’re able to communicate with each other, and the freeloaders or chimpanzees that try to steal food are either punished or ignored. In circumstances where they’re presented with a selfish choice (food only for themselves), or a prosocial choice (food for themselves and their partners in an adjacent pen), they choose the prosocial option at greater than chance levels.

My favorite part of the talk was when Professor de Waal introduced “Of cucumbers and grapes,” a study examining fairness. In this study, one monkey received a cucumber for giving a pebble to the researchers, whereas the other received a grape for the same task. The first monkey’s reaction to getting subsequent cucumbers was hilarious, and the audience was roaring with laughter. You can see for yourself what happened!

I had so much fun listening to Professor de Waal’s talk. It’s always wonderful having the opportunity to connect class concepts with present day research and ideas in action!


Author: Jane

Hello! My name is Jane, and I’m a senior majoring in Psychology and Public Health. Originally from Davis, CA, I love adventure and exploring new places. I’ve traveled to six continents, and most recently spent this past summer in Madagascar hanging out with lemurs! In addition to giving tours of UC Berkeley, I’m also involved with research at the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic, planning events for the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholars Association, and providing anonymous peer support for SPILL. In my spare time, I enjoy playing piano and violin, swimming, lounging in sunny spots around campus, and hiking the Berkeley hills. Cal is a dynamic, inspiring place, and I’m constantly excited by the opportunities here for learning, growth, and discovery. Go Bears!