Five things chimps can teach us about politics

There are incredible parallels between our political world and that of other primates. In Analysis: Primate Politics, Professor James Tilley has been finding out what we can learn about politics from the power struggles within chimpanzee groups.

Chimpanzee power struggles mirror human politics

1. Keep your friends close, but enemies closer

Chimpanzee politics is a web of shifting alliances, and to get to the top you need to be prepared to turn on your friends and embrace your enemies. Most alliances are of convenience, not of friendship.

2. When building your alliances, pick someone weak not someone strong

Chimpanzees tend to form ‘minimal winning coalitions’. That means that two weak chimpanzees will gang up on one strong one, rather than one of the weak ones allying with the strong one. This makes sense if we think of it as: if I ally with someone weak, the division of spoils will be more favourable to me than if I ally with someone strong.

3. It’s good to be feared, but it’s better to be liked

Chimpanzee leaders can be the most fearsome and rule by strength, but these leaders won’t last very long. To be a successful leader, you need to cultivate support for you and your coalition among the masses and a combination of being gentle and firm is the key.

4. It’s good to be liked, but it’s even better to be able to hand out goodies

The longest ruling leaders are the ones that can capture resources and use those resources to buy support. In Analysis: Primate Politics we hear about a leader that ruled for over 12 years by distributing meat from hunts.

5. External threats can shore up support (if they are real…)

When faced with an external threat, groups of primates band together and forget their internal struggles. Interestingly there is not much evidence that deliberate diversionary wars work like this for humans, but there is much better evidence for rally round the flag effects when there is an unexpected external threat (for example, the response after 9/11).