Further Lessons from de Waal’s Capuchin Experiment regarding Relational Disruption


Never Ending Stairs — Huangshan/Yellow Mountain, Anhui Province, China 2013

In the last post, we covered Franz de Waal’s capuchin monkey experiment, where an Experimental Executor (E.E.) fed dissimilar rewards to two caged primates for the same task — fetching a rock and handing it to the person outside the cage.  De Waal used this to establish the notion that humans aren’t the only ones with a concept of fairness, and there’s an implied genetic argument to this as well.  Fair enough!

But when we look at de Waal’s experiment through a different lens, where the E.E. is now part of the system, lots of other interesting insights on collective behavior come up.  It’s helpful to go back and read the first post.  Below is the first figure that describes the experiment that de Waal discusses.


Experimental Executor Outside the System

And below is the system that we’re going to discuss.


Experimental Executor Inside the System

Let’s start with some obvious statement of facts:

  1.  All actors inside the red system boundary are sentient.
  2. They are communicating with each other as they are able, and all have some limited ability to see into the future.
  3. The E.E. may possess a greater capacity to see into the future, but she is still limited.
  4. Both monkeys can communicate with each other, and they can communicate with the E.E.
  5. Even though the monkeys have no human language, they are able to communicate a range of system states/emotions to the human in the system, the E.E.
  6. Information coherence in this system is extremely likely limited by the transmission mechanism — not the neural capacity of the actors.  If the monkeys could better express themselves in a way the human could understand, certainly the experiment would either end earlier or not take place!

Why state all the stuff above?  Once we accept that all actors in the system are sentient, we can now understand this experiment as a phenomenological exploration of social structure.  We can then make some observations about how those social structures map to the v-Memes in Spiral Dynamics, and what kind of knowledge structures the monkeys are able to possess.  Once we understand that, we might come to the conclusion that if we’re concerned about respecting different beings with the same level of sentience — albeit more noisy information channels, or less sophisticated ways of communicating information between actors that drag out the process of communicating between sentient actors (different time scales) — we might want to reevaluate our own empathetic development.

We know that the monkeys involved — capuchin monkeys — live in trees, and associate in a band.  There is some social structure that’s been observed, where it appears that a dominant male and female run the show.  That means the capuchins likely gets up to the Authoritarian v-Meme, as the male alpha definitely gets more sex than any of the other male monkeys.  However, sex is doled out by the females after they think they’ve gotten pregnant to the other male monkeys, as a form of communication and soothing.  These monkeys want to maintain a high level of social cohesion, as monkeys in the extended network also go out and find food across a wide area.

That means these monkeys are sensitive, like all Tribal and nascent Authoritarian systems, to the distribution of energy among all the sentient actors.  Hooked together as a band, if one monkey can’t get up and jump between the trees, it’s going to affect others.  They are at least emotionally empathetically connected.  And they have some ability to use money!  Researchers have also shown intelligence enough for tool use, and mimicking.  That places these monkeys somewhere close to humans attempting to fix a dishwasher without prior training or access to watching YouTube videos!

What’s the point of establishing this equivalency between capuchin monkeys and humans, from a point of sentience?  You might think I’m going to argue for better monkey treatment.  That monkeys are really in our In-Group, and they deserve a life outside a cage, and at a minimum, an occasional day at the ball park.  And hey — I’m all about being nice, or nicer to monkeys!

But that’s not the point to this blog post.  It’s this:  monkeys are a great stand-in for humans inside a social system, and we can draw conclusions that are spot-on about human behavior (or actually, sentient behavior) inside a given social system by observing the outcomes of de Waal’s cucumber/grape experiment.  Understanding the basics of this social network can give us insight into how human authorities work inside an authoritarian social system, and how relational disruption occurs.

Let’s start by reassigning the role of cucumbers and grapes as well.  Ignoring taste, both cucumbers and grapes are food.  Food with different energetic concentrations.  Grapes are full of sugar, and thus high energy.  Cucumbers are essentially water, and thus low/no energy. In this experiment, the Authority distributes energy across the network.  An evolved Authority might follow higher, more evolved v-Meme direction in distribution of rewards.  If the Authority had an egalitarian bent, she might give each monkey a grape for a successful rock retrieval.  The monkeys have been shown to be happy with even a bite of cucumber as long as both received the same reward.

But if the Authority was imperious, and not motivated to explain circumstances (or what we might call system boundary conditions) to the sentient actors in this system, then she might arbitrarily dole out grapes and cucumbers as her impulsive, limbic mind prompts her.  If she arbitrarily picks a favorite — if she uses her authority in a way that is indecipherable to her lower tier constituency, I’d be willing to bet that most of the monkeys treated poorly will withdraw, and become depressed.  There’s no point in fetching a rock if you’re never going to get a grape!

But some of the monkeys will realize they’re sorted into an Out-group that is going to starve to death.  I’ll bet those monkeys, over time, become High Conflict monkeys, attempting to act out to get the grapes.  Other monkeys in the Out-group may actually look up to that crazy monkey, because at least he/she doesn’t accept the status quo.  That monkey likely has a predisposition to acting out and is triggered earlier than the other monkeys — it seems highly unlikely that all the monkeys would spontaneously rise up at once.

If the Authority is arbitrary, and doles out grapes and cucumbers in an arbitrary pattern, it’s likely that over time the monkeys will both become confused.  There’s no pattern in reward, and the only task they’re permitted to do is fetch a stupid rock from a holder on the side.  Monkeys subject to this treatment are likely to both become depressed.  They can’t figure out the system, and their brains have enough circuits to remember what happened earlier.  I’ll bet these monkeys largely become nihilistic and passive.  There’s no point, when the reward is arbitrary, in stepping up performance.  Nothing really matters.

But it’s also likely that this behavior of random rewards mentally unhinges both monkeys, and they start fighting.  By switching the reward centers in the sentient actors’ brains randomly, it gives the monkeys schizophrenia.

Now we can step back and consider the Experimental Executor (E.E.)  Here we can also see how the different Authoritarian v-Meme archetypes come into play. The empathy-disordered E.E. uses preferential rewards based on arbitrary criteria to depress monkeys it wants to depress, and coddle monkeys it wants to coddle.  It uses arbitrary rewards to create chaos and confusion among members of the band, and disrupt relationships between the monkeys.  In the end, once the Authoritarian E.E. is dethroned, it’s highly likely that you’re going to end up with a lower level v-Meme, Tribal social structure among our capuchins, with profound In-Group/Out-Group dynamics.  And in the likely event that there’s not enough energy/food overall, those monkeys are going to kill each other.

What if there’s enough food?  I’ll bet the monkeys might have a short spat and go back toward some level of harmony.  But if there’s not enough?

Now we might gain some insight into how the empathy-disordered gain power in hierarchical organizations.  Let’s say we have an organization that is operating with a reduced budget relative to times past,  has some low level of turmoil, and is relatively stable.  No one is getting what they think they deserve, but everyone has enough to survive.  In through Stage Left comes an Authoritarian Relational Disruptor (ARD).  The ARD promises the Authority above them an unachievable goal that is not possible with the current energetics in the system.  He then goes inside the social community and starts doling out grapes to some representative half of the social community at a level that they feel they deserve.

But because there’s not enough grapes to go around, he has to get those grapes from somewhere.  Those he takes from the implicitly designated Out-Group.  Those monkeys in the In-Group that thought they deserved the extra rations all along are now highly supportive of the ARD. Their level of grape maintenance maps with their self assessment of what they deserved before entering the resource-constrained environment.  They’re happy, and they initially start working harder.  If the metrics around performance are keyed to the types of outputs that the higher-level authority (the one above the ARD) expects, the ARD looks like a genius!  The higher-ups remark “We always knew that was just a lower performing unit!  This ARD is just the ticket!”

What happens to the people in the Out-group?  Well, they get depressed. Constrained by culture (or a cage!) from wrapping their hands around the the ARD’s neck, they can’t actualize their obvious frustration.  Their performance drops. But because the ARD isn’t recording their performance, because he’s figured out that it’s not the metrics being tracked by his higher-ups, he feels no consequence from his actions.  And since the ARD is at best neutrally empathetic, and potentially anti-empathetic, he either feels no pain, or gets off on the pain from the Out-group.

Of course, it’s highly likely that all the people in the system, even in the depressed energetic state, were producing energetics that sustained the whole network.  So the reduced flow of energy from the Out-group does have effects.  But there is inherently a time/information lag in the system, that lag is increased because of the anti-empathetic nature of the input from the ARD.  Relational fragmentation is occurring almost instantaneously — in the context of old social bonds, who wants to go to an old friend and ask him why he got the extra grape (or raise) you thought both of you deserved?  So information transfer starts failing as well.

But over time, chaos starts creeping into the system.  Initially, people less conflict-averse start protesting working conditions.  But over time, a more profound segregation occurs, with the In-Group supporting the ARD, and the Out-Group suffering.

The dynamic continues — those averse to conflict in both sides leave if they can get out of the cage.  If the performance measures are short term and have no gearing for social harmony, then the ARD gets a promotion!  Sometimes, groups with enough self awareness and v-Meme evolution realize what’s happening and coalesce around throwing the ARD out.  Depending on the level of higher v-Memes (Legalism, Performance, Communitarian processing) systems like these recover.

But that is all time-dependent.  And if the system has expectations of continuous production, it is likely that the system will collapse.

Now you can see how looking at de Waal’s experiment is really teaching us what’s happening in the world today, with increasing gaps in wealth inequality!  All we had to do was draw the system boundary a little larger!

2 thoughts on “Further Lessons from de Waal’s Capuchin Experiment regarding Relational Disruption

  1. I completely agree with your analysis here. About inequality, there is a great book on the topic. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it to you before. It’s Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He discusses how humans change under high inequality.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s