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Frans de Waal on the human primate: Strength is weakness

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a four-part series of essays for Scientific American by primatologist Frans de Waal on human nature, based on his ongoing research. (The first post, on our sense of fairness, can be read here, and a second post, on the impact of crowding, is here.) De Waal and other researchers appear in a series of Department of Expansion videos focusing on the same topic.

Chimpanzees continually play coalition games; power is rarely in the hands of a single individual. The male with the most supporters usually wins, which is why size and strength are such poor predictors of the hierarchy. Diplomacy Is at least as important, as explained in Chimpanzee Politics (1982).

Once, in a large zoo colony an old male faced a choice between either attaching himself to the most powerful player, the reigning alpha male, and deriving a few benefits in return, or helping a young-and-coming male challenge the alpha. The old male took the second route. The result was a new leader who owed his position to the old male, and as a result the latter gained far more leverage than would have been possible under the reigning alpha male. Throwing his weight behind the young male was consistent with the "strength is weakness" paradox known in international politics and coalition games played with humans. The most powerful player is often the least attractive political ally.

Ever since Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, it has been known that nations seek allies against nations perceived as a common threat. Fear and resentment drive weaker parties into one another’s arms, making them weigh in on the lighter side of the balance. The result is a power balance in which all nations hold influential positions. Sometimes a single country is the main "balancer," such as Great Britain was in Europe before World War I.

Balance of power theory remains heavily debated in international affairs, and I would argue that it also applies to primate coalitions. This means that no player can take its position for granted, because even the most powerful player—or precisely the most powerful—faces forces that seek to erode its power.



Balancing tendencies are reflected in our everyday psychological reactions, such as rooting for the underdog during a sports match or feeling schadenfreude over the mishaps of successful and powerful people. We don’t take any pleasure in the misfortune of the poor, but look at our fascination with political scandals and celebrities embarrassing themselves or going to jail. We’re continually ready to bring down those who rise to positions above ours, thus demonstrating our equalizing tendencies.



Frans de Waal, PhD, is a Dutch-American primatologist known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982) and The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009). He teaches at Emory University in Atlanta where he directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Video credit: Department of Expansion

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  1. 1. Andira 10:10 pm 07/23/2010

    These were good examples of an equalizing tendency. But I still believe that envy plays a major role in establishing Schadenfreude. The interesting conclusion mainly for teenagers is that they should not strive to become world famous, perhaps.

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  2. 2. CathySmith 9:21 pm 08/25/2010

    good post man………………

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  3. 3. Slade 2:47 am 09/14/2010

    The example of the older chimp supporting the younger one against the against the alpha is too specific of an example to generalize about such a tendency of the weaker forming coalitions against the stronger. From the beginning the old chimp was taking a risk by supporting the younger for they still might have failed even in greater numbers and the older would have been better off accepting the lesser benefits of siding with the alpha against the failure and lack of any benefits of siding with the younger. And what if there had been not just one young chimp seeking to take over but two young chimps seeking to take over? Would the Older chimp still take the weakest of the three? This choice may increase his possible benefits but it also increases the risk of failure as he now has to overcome two opponents with with the help of an ally that is weaker than either. This theory relies on the fact that all weaker parties are willing to take the risk of total loss in order to receive a limited gain.

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