Parrots That Show Selfless Kindness

A good study has recently been done on grey parrots.

experiment

According to Charles Darwin, helping others just doesn’t make sense. Yet we’ve seemingly seen altruism time and again in the animal kingdom: in primates, in canines, in cetaceanspinnipeds, even vampire bats. Now, for the first time, it’s been demonstrated in birds.

The kind bird is one of the titans of avian intelligence, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). New experiments have shown these birds happily helping each other acquire treats, without any assumption or anticipation that their altruism will be reciprocated.

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” explained behavioural biologist Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

But the birds take it one step further. Unlike primates, for example, the parrots display no anger or envy if one of their friends receives favourable treatment, instead seeming quite content that good things are happening to a buddy.

Among the bird kingdom, it’s the corvids – such as crows and ravens – that are probably the most famed for their wicked smarts, and with very good reason. In fact, corvids have demonstrated skills previously only observed in primates.

However, the researchers said, corvids have failed tests of altruism. But there are other smart birds out there – like parrots. Cockatoos can make their own tools, and have even demonstrated playful creativity. And African grey parrots have proven to be smarter than a human child in some tests.

So, the research team designed a test for altruism, and gave it to two different types of parrots – eight African greys, and six blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni).

The birds had been previously trained to exchange tokens (metal washers) for treats. This training was refreshed, and the scientists assessed their subjects’ relationships with other birds of their species. Each bird was tested with one bird with whom they had a close bond, and a second bird with a less close bond.

The birds were then placed in a clear perspex enclosure, with a dividing wall between them. The front of the box had holes through which items could be exchanged with a human; and the dividing wall between the birds also had a hole, through which the two birds could also exchange items.

All the birds quickly understood the concept of swapping the washer for a piece of walnut, and were able to do so. But, when only one of two birds was given tokens, only the African grey parrots, not the macaws, also deliberately gave tokens to their buddies.

“Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘prosocially,'” said zoologist Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously – in their very first trial – thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on. Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

In all, they voluntarily gave other African grey parrots 157 out of 320 tokens – nearly half. And, interestingly, although they passed tokens regardless of their social bond, they did give more tokens to birds with whom they shared a close bond.

The macaws, by contrast, rarely passed their tokens through to the other parrot. If they did, they dropped it through the hole; and they did it more often when the human experimenter was present. This led the scientists to believe the macaws were trying to pass the token to the human, not their buddy.

The difference could be due to social differences between the species in the wild, but there was one more interesting thing. In a separate recent study, the researchers showed that, when an African grey parrot sees a friend getting a better treat, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees, who tend to get riled up about it.

According to von Bayern, this could be because the parrots monogamously mate for life.

“Given that parrots are so closely bonded with a single individual and thus so mutually interdependent, it does not make any difference if one of them gets a better pay-off once in a while,” she said.

“What counts is that together, they function as a unit that can achieve much more than each of them on their own (in addition to raising their joint offspring). This is probably why parrots are much more tolerant towards unequal treatment than species that are not long-term monogamous, while still being excellent cooperators.”

The research has been published in Current Biology.

Joy of Giving Found to Last Longer Than the Joy of Getting

It’s rather striking that this is recent research with how important human happiness is (becoming happy may be the most important thing in life) and with how much focus there’s been on happiness. The research is incomplete, but it is part of a growing series of evidence demonstrating the value of kindness.

The happiness we feel after a particular event or activity diminishes each time we experience that event, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. But giving to others may be the exception to this rule, according to research forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In two studies, psychology researchers Ed O’Brien (University of Chicago Booth School of Business) and Samantha Kassirer (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management) found that participants’ happiness did not decline, or declined much slower, if they repeatedly bestowed gifts on others versus repeatedly receiving those same gifts themselves.

“If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it,” O’Brien explains.

In one experiment, university student participants received $5 every day for 5 days; they were required to spend the money on the exact same thing each time. The researchers randomly assigned participants to spend the money either on themselves or on someone else, such as by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity every day. The participants reflected on their spending experience and overall happiness at the end of each day.

The data, from a total of 96 participants, showed a clear pattern: Participants started off with similar levels of self-reported happiness and those who spent money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness over the 5-day period. But happiness did not seem to fade for those who gave their money to someone else. The joy from giving for the fifth time in a row was just as strong as it was at the start.

O’Brien and Kassirer then conducted a second experiment online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent across participants. In this experiment, 502 participants played 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. They won $0.05 per round, which they either kept or donated to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful.

Again, the self-reported happiness of those who gave their winnings away declined far more slowly than did the happiness reported by those who kept their winnings.

Further analyses ruled out some potential alternative explanations, such as the possibility that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness.

“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” says O’Brien. “None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”

Adaptation to happiness-inducing experiences can be functional to the extent that it motivates us to pursue and acquire new resources. Why doesn’t this also happen with the happiness we feel when we give?

The researchers note that when people focus on an outcome, such as getting paid, they can easily compare outcomes, which diminishes their sensitivity to each experience. When people focus on an action, such as donating to a charity, they may focus less on comparison and instead experience each act of giving as a unique happiness-inducing event.

We may also be slower to adapt to happiness generated by giving because giving to others helps us maintain our prosocial reputation, reinforcing our sense of social connection and belonging.

These findings raise some interesting questions for future research — for example, would these findings hold if people were giving or receiving larger amounts of money? Or giving to friends versus strangers?

The researchers have also considered looking beyond giving or receiving monetary rewards, since prosocial behavior includes a wide range of experiences.

Research: Kindness to Employees Improves Worker Performance

There’s thus good evidence that mean employers devalue companies. Someone ought to mention this to the highest level of management in the economy — there are too many of these employers, as workers generally know quite well.

Want the best results out of your employees? Then be nice to them.

New research from Binghamton University, State University at New York finds that showing compassion to subordinates almost always pays off, especially when combined with the enforcement of clear goals and benchmarks.

“Being benevolent is important because it can change the perception your followers have of you,” said Chou-Yu Tsai, an assistant professor of management at Binghamton University’s School of Management. “If you feel that your leader or boss actually cares about you, you may feel more serious about the work you do for them.”

[…]

They surveyed nearly 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military and almost 200 adults working full-time in the United States, and looked at the subordinate performance that resulted from three different leadership styles:

  • Authoritarianism-dominant leadership: Leaders who assert absolute authority and control, focused mostly on completing tasks at all costs with little consideration of the well-being of subordinates
  • Benevolence-dominant leadership: Leaders whose primary concern is the personal or familial well-being of subordinates. These leaders want followers to feel supported and have strong social ties.
  • Classical paternalistic leadership: A leadership style that combines both authoritarianism and benevolence, with a strong focus on both task completion and the well-being of subordinates.

The researchers found that authoritarianism-dominant leadership almost always had negative results on job performance, while benevolence-dominant leadership almost always had a positive impact on job performance. In other words, showing no compassion to your employees doesn’t bode well for their job performance, while showing compassion motivated them to be better workers.

They also found that classical paternalistic leadership, which combines both benevolence and authoritarianism, had just as strong an effect on subordinate performance as benevolent-dominant leadership. Tsai said the reason for this phenomenon may extend all the way back to childhood.

“The parent and child relationship is the first leader-follower relationship that people experience. It can become a bit of a prototype of what we expect out of leadership going forward, and the paternalistic leadership style kind of resembles that of a parent,” Tsai said.

“The findings imply that showing personal and familial support for employees is a critical part of the leader-follower relationship. While the importance of establishing structure and setting expectations is important for leaders, and arguably parents, help and guidance from the leader in developing social ties and support networks for a follower can be a powerful factor in their job performance,” Dionne said.

Because of the difference in work cultures between U.S. employees and members of the Taiwanese military, researchers were surprised that the results were consistent across both groups.

“The consistency in the results across different cultures and different job types is fascinating. It suggests that the effectiveness of paternalistic leadership may be more broad-based than previously thought, and it may be all about how people respond to leaders and not about where they live or the type of work they do,” Yammarino said.

Tsai said his main takeaway for managers is to put just as much or even more of an emphasis on the well-being of your employees as you do on hitting targets and goals.

“Subordinates and employees are not tools or machines that you can just use. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect,” said Tsai. “Make sure you are focusing on their well-being and helping them find the support they need, while also being clear about what your expectations and priorities are. This is a work-based version of ‘tough love’ often seen in parent-child relationships.”