Karla Lant

Freelance Writer, Editor and Professor

Individuality, Interdependence and Motivation: You Could Learn a Lot From a Chimp

Interdependence, Indidivuality and Motivation: We Could Learn a Lot From a Chimp


It Takes a Village?

It takes a village, right? As Americans, though, we’re not great village people (except for The Village People–totally great).

Every day we hear that we should think globally and act locally, live sustainably and cooperate with others. It’s true, those are great goals. They are challenging yet attainable. Why aren’t we more motivated to meet them?

Stanford Researchers MarYam Hamedani, Hazel Rose Markus, and Alyssa Fu wondered how these messages of interdependence work in our society which values individualistic behavior and success so highly, so they did a study, as researchers like to do. Hamedani explained: “We suspected that while Americans might say they like the idea of working together and cooperating, such appeals may not motivate them to action.”

The report on the results is here, but basically they found a few interesting things. European Americans were actually demotivated by invocations of interdependence; when presented with tasks in that context they gave up sooner than if they had no context at all. When they had invocations of independence as a context for tasks they tried harder.

Okay, so if interdependence is important to global, long-term success but Americans hate it, how can we learn to balance interdependence and individualism while staying motivated?

You Could Learn a Lot From a Chimpanzee

It turns out we could learn a lot from our chimpanzee brethren.

World-famous primatologist, anthropologist, United Nations “Messenger of Peace” and general legend of badassery Jane Goodall studied the chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania for 45 years. No kidding. In the late 1990s she started transitioning into more of what she does today–travel, lecture, educate and raise awareness about primates–and in 1997 she lectured a hall full of Cornell students about individuality and interdependence.

That day Goodall told those students that the single most important contribution she and her research have made to the world is her revelation of the singularly important role that individuality plays within the very interdependent cultures of primate communities.

During her 45 years amongst chimpanzees, Goodall learned that each animal is truly unique. At her 1997 lecture she spent most of the time showing photos of her chimpanzee companions and talking about their personalities. They inspired the entire gamut of human emotions in Goodall and her team from love to hate, and seemed to experience these kinds of feelings themselves.

Overall, chimpanzee communities are far more interdependent and cooperative than ours. They have to be to maximize success and ensure survival. But chimpanzees still manage to maintain their own identities and engage in individualistic behavior.

In 2012 a Georgia State research team reported that chimpanzees teach and learn from each other. What’s more, they use the socially-transmitted information from these teachings to create and perpetuate smaller, individualized tribes within larger societies.

Sounds foreign to you? It shouldn’t. Travel state to state in the United States and visit our own individualized tribes to see what I mean.Interdependent Individuals

Kissing Cousins

We already know we share more than 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. We also share cultural patterns. The 2012 Georgia State study also compared the ways that groups of chimpanzees differ and resemble groups of human children as they play sharing games. The research suggests that both children and chimpanzees understand both fairness and self-interest, and act on both.

Both the Stanford and Georgia State studies illuminate the role of fair play and interdependence in human evolution. All of the work shows that motivation and preferences are closely connected to the cultural norms of our community. Ethical individuality and self-interest is the key.

Can we learn to be individualistic yet productively interdependent? Can we learn that living in a community-oriented fashion does not destroy individuality? Can we learn that because interdependence supports each individual community member no matter how different, it shares a symbiotic cultural relationship with individuality?

It is easy to be afraid of interdependence. Some of our most difficult challenges as a society highlight the negative effects of interdependence: the gunman in the school, the superbug spreading like wildfire through a town, the collapse of local, state, national and international economies like dominoes.

The Stanford researchers advise us that promotion of individual efforts for the greater good might be the answer. Any student of leadership can tell you that one of the fundamentals in creating a situation that is mutually beneficial is looking for shared interests. Seeing your interdependence with others shows you the interests you share.

Helping HandsWinning?

“….I understood why those who had lived through war or economic disasters, and who had built for themselves a good life and a high standard of living, were rightly proud to be able to provide for their children those things which they themselves had not had. And why their children, inevitably, took those things for granted. It meant that new values and new expectations had crept into our societies along with new standards of living,” Goodall wrote.

A new, skewed sense of fair play. But fair play can be learned, and re-learned. Children and chimpanzees do it all the time. Take it from Jane: “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” It’s your individual decision how to honor the interdependence we all share.

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This entry was posted on January 26, 2013 by .
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