You'd think that monkey society would be pretty straightforward: They eat, they poop, they fling said poop at each other for no particular reason, and the rest of the time is spent having sex. If that isn't paradise, then it's pretty damn close. It's not like they spend their days paying for Internet porn and getting lied to by smooth-talking authority figures. Oh, wait, they totally are ...
Some of the greatest scientific developments happened by accident, like the time when 40 years of conclusive research were overturned when a monkey stared at his balls in a mirror. Seriously.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were testing the effects of an ADHD drug on rhesus macaques that had been given skullcap-mounted implants to monitor their brain activity. The scientists were surprised to see one of the monkeys looking at itself in a mirror and touching the implants, even though previous research had concluded that these monkeys didn't have self-awareness. This in itself was shocking enough ... but then the macaques started adjusting the mirrors and contorting themselves to look at their own junk, which usually isn't visible to them.
Yep, once the monkeys realized that they could see themselves, their first thought was "I wonder what my taint looks like." This proved that the rhesus macaques have a concept of self, like humans, and that they are major pervs, also like humans.
In a different study in the growing field of monkey boners, a group of researchers at the Duke University Medical Center took photos of female macaques' behinds and loaded them on a computer (it's unclear why they couldn't just type "monkey butts" on Google like the rest of us). The researchers then showed the pictures to male rhesus macaques and rewarded them with juice every time their eyes moved from picture to picture.
However, they found that male monkeys were willing to give up juice to continue looking at compromising photographs of females. Not just any females, but high-ranking ones -- essentially, they were paying to look at top-quality porn, because even monkeys know that you can get the amateur stuff anywhere for free. On the other hand, when the researchers put low-ranking females on the screen, they had to give the macaques extra juice to make them watch. They had to pay monkeys to look at ugly butts.
So what does this prove? For starters, that monkeys discriminate against each other based on their social status, just like us. The low-ranking females weren't necessarily "uglier" than the high-ranking ones; they were just more submissive. The other thing this proves is that monkeys will give up material goods to get momentary satisfaction, which leads us to the fact that ...
Monkeys may not have jobs or mortgages or malfunctioning alarm clocks, but they still have to deal with stress, especially low-ranking monkeys, since they have to put up with having their stuff taken away all the time or just being beaten up for no reason. Studies have shown that monkey depression is physiologically very similar to ours, which led researchers to wonder whether high- and low-ranking monkeys dealt with stress differently. So, naturally, they gave all of them cocaine dispensers.
The scientists placed the test subjects in separate cages surrounded by unfamiliar monkeys. After 40 minutes of monkeys jabbering at one another to get them all stressed out, researchers gave them the option of pulling a lever that delivered food or another that spit out Colombian marching powder. Oddly enough, the dominant monkeys were more likely to choose food, while the subordinate ones kept choosing cocaine -- apparently, the stresses related to belonging to the monkey equivalent of the lower social class makes them want to do hard drugs.
In a different test, researchers gave a group of monkeys access to high-fat banana pellets, which is like their version of a bucket of Haagen-Dazs. Although all of the monkeys, regardless of their social rank, could take as many banana pellets as they wanted, the high-ranking monkeys only dabbled in the stuff, while the low-ranking ones went on eating binges, gorging themselves on junk food because, dammit, they've been putting up with bullshit all day, and they deserve a little break now, don't they?
Scientists think that this happens because high-calorie foods help block the release of stress hormones like cortisol, or simply because the snacks activate the reward pathways in the brain and these pushed-around monkeys don't get a whole lot of pleasure in their everyday lives. In the end, it comes down to the fact that stressed-out monkeys make the same poor decisions as we do -- any day now they'll do a study where a monkey ends up finding out that he bought all 24 seasons of Cops on DVD from eBay, for some reason.
We've previously talked about how monkeys can go to war, which obviously means that one of them has to act as the "general." This isn't exactly decided by an open election: In macaque troops, the alpha male is basically the monkey who's the biggest jerk. Like human dictators or schoolyard bullies, dominant monkeys use frequent and unpredictable aggression as an effective form of intimidation; in other words, they'll literally go apeshit on your ass, just to show that they can.
The shocking part is that the troops themselves also react to these intimidation techniques in a surprisingly human-like manner: by using scapegoats.
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When a mid-level macaque is attacked by a stronger rival, victims will sometimes turn to innocent bystanders and beat the ever-loving crap out of them -- they direct the attention away from themselves onto a weaker, lower-status monkey that no one is going to defend. And it works: The alpha male doesn't really care whose ass gets kicked as long as it's sufficiently well-established that he's a crazy bastard that could go off on anyone at any moment. Once a scapegoat has been selected, the two of them will proceed to pummel the poor loser whose only mistake was being close by.
But scapegoating isn't always just about saving your ass: Sometimes the monkeys use it as a type of political strategy. Often times the aggressor and the original victim will bond over beating the scapegoat and become allies, united in their douchebaggery (tearing into a helpless schmo is how bullies make friends, after all). And if a mid-level macaque takes the risk of choosing a high-ranking one as a scapegoat during a beating and it works, he can rise in the group and eventually become the top asshole.
But, like with humans, some monkeys are born to be leaders, and others are doomed to be punching bags. Many mid-level monkeys have favorite scapegoats that they'll pick every time there's a need for some dickish misdirection. So whenever a fight breaks out, you'll see low-ranking monkeys making a run for it, regardless of who's involved, so they don't accidentally end up being beaten by a mob for no reason.
Not that we don't find even more sophisticated psychological games being played in monkey society. For instance ...
We've told you before that many animals, including monkeys, possess an astounding range of calls to communicate and describe predators, which is how they can warn other members of their community when they see something dangerous lurking around. What we didn't mention is that some of them use this incredible ability to bullshit each other.
We can hardly blame capuchin monkeys of South America for being deceiving little bastards, because life for these poor guys is very much like being perpetually stuck in high school. The low-ranking monkeys are constantly having their food taken away by high-ranking jerks, and there's nothing they can do to stop this abuse from happening -- except lying their pants off.
You see, when they find something tasty that they want to hold on to, the low-ranking monkeys will sometimes give a false warning shout to make everyone else haul ass, even the head monkeys, so they can eat without anyone bothering them. This is the equivalent of a high school nerd calling in a fake bomb threat so he can eat his fill of Jell-O cups in the cafeteria. Check out this video of a monkey who yells "snake" so that he doesn't have to share an egg:
When researchers noticed that the monkeys were doing this, they started performing some experiments, and they found that when they placed highly valued banana pieces near the monkeys, they were 10 times more likely to give out false alarms. Scientists still aren't sure if those monkeys actually understand that they are lying or if they simply learned to associate certain calls with getting more bananas for themselves, but the result is the same: All the other monkeys are getting conned out of their food.
Of course, this strategy involves some risks: Rhesus macaques, for example, punish members that are caught cheating the group out of food, presumably by tying their tails around their behinds and performing pantsless wedgies. In order to get away with it, these macaques would have to be capable of premeditated crime, but no monkey would be smart enough to do something like that, right?
A few years ago, a group of researchers studying rhesus macaques in Puerto Rico were using lemons to see if the macaques could understand that one plus one equals two, for a study called "Monkeys: How Stupid Are They, Really?" However, when their lemons started disappearing, the researchers ended up proving something a lot more interesting: These macaques are master criminals, and they can even put themselves in the place of a human to avoid getting caught.
The researchers noticed that the macaques were systematically robbing them blind, snatching up the lemons every chance they got, to the point where they couldn't even finish the experiments they originally wanted to do. This proves that monkeys: A) really like lemons and B) fucking hate math. But beyond that, what surprised the researchers the most was that the macaques actually understood what the humans could see and hear and used this information to plan out their crimes.
For example, in one test, researchers placed fruit in two boxes: one had bells on it and the other didn't. The monkeys watched them being set up, so they knew which box made a sound when it was opened. As soon as the researchers turned their heads, the sneaky little bastards automatically went for the quieter box and stole the fruit.
Think about what this means: The macaques weren't just running in and stealing the food; they were actually thinking ahead, carefully considering what they knew about the humans and planning the theft in such a way that they didn't get caught. They were George Clooney in Ocean's Eleven and the researchers were Andy Garcia.
The experiments concluded that rhesus monkeys have the ability to deduce what others perceive based on where they're looking or what they're hearing. In other words, while the researchers were trying to study the monkeys, the monkeys were studying them. We're assuming that no one heard from those researchers again and they're now in some sort of makeshift monkey lab in the middle of the jungle.
All of these relatively recent discoveries are interesting to researchers, because by looking at the negative conduct of our primate cousins, we can also find out more about the roots of our own behavior and learn from that. So the next time someone at work accuses you of something you didn't do, just yell "snake," snort some coke and watch porn. It's only natural.
To better know more of our furry friends, check out 6 Insane Dog Behaviors Explained by Evolution and 6 Adorable Cat Behaviors With Shockingly Evil Explanations.