Tag Archives: behavior

The Human Primate

As an anthropologist, I’ve read a few ethnographies.  They are generally fairly dry and academic. I’ve also read a few ethologies of primate behavior, which tend to be much more entertaining.  I recently finished a book that manages to successfully blend both ethnography and ethology: Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin.

Martin does an excellent job of incorporating the data gleaned from participant-observation (she moved into the habitat of Park Avenue East and interacted on a daily basis with the women there) with the behavioral insights informed from research done  by primatologists on the other great apes (humans are a type of great ape) and monkeys.  Her scientific study of New York City women in the 0.1% shows that even the wealthiest women living in one of the wealthiest cities in the world are really not far-removed from our primate cousins.

Primates of Park Avenue is an enjoyable, fast read that demonstrates how an anthropologist with an interest in primatology views her fellow humans.  Frankly, there is a little chimp/bonobo in all of us.


“Too Big for our Brains”

You’ve seen it.  You may have done it yourself.  Someone cuts in front of you while driving.  How rude!  You yell at them, maybe cussing at them.  Behavior that probably wouldn’t happen among friends happens easily among strangers.   Why is this?

For around two million years, humans lived in small foraging groups of around 25 to 50 individuals.  When food was plentiful, the groups would gather together to exchange news and to find a mate.  A variety of research studies by anthropologists has found that humans can form optimal connections with no more than about 150 others.  Beyond that number, others tend to be viewed as strangers and, therefore, as potentially dangerous.

This data forms the basis of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ucka book on manners for the 21st century  written by Amy Alkon whose advice is informed by solid scientific research leavened by pointed and humorous personal anecdotes.   Our brains are optimized for small-group living, but most of us live in cities and suburbs surrounded by strangers.  The group size we now have to deal with is too big for our brains. This makes it difficult to behave well towards strangers.  But an effective society requires that we figure out how to do just that.

Alkon’s primary recommendation is to turn strangers into neighbors.  Actually look at everyone you encounter: smile, be pleasant. When you really see someone and they really see you, it is harder for either of you to be rude.  “[R]udeness…almost always comes down to a failure of empathy–neglecting to consider how our behavior will affect others.” (p. 196)

Failures of empathy tread all over another person’s dignity and may cause that person also to behave rudely.  A negative cycle ensues.

When we view someone as a stranger rather than a neighbor, it is easier to treat that person as not fully human.  As Alkon notes, we have to find ways to connect with strangers in order to make them co-humans with whom we can relate.  Or, as I say to my students, “Build Bridges, not Walls.”

In this holiday season where the focus is on peace and goodwill, use empathy to break down walls and build bridges.  View others as potential friends rather than potential dangers. Turn strangers into neighbors.



Morality and Adaptability

Jonthan Haidt, a psychologist speaking at TED, has some intriguing thoughts on morality and adaptability, and how these relate to liberal and conservative attitudes and behaviors.

Since change will happen, and since one’s ability to adapt to that change will determine one’s success in the future, resistance to change is a problem.  What can be done?  Watch the video and leave your comments below.