How Primate Behavior is used to Understand Human Behavior

Humans are primates. That is the guiding idea for those who use primates to study human behavior. People are members of the great ape family, along with the gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. Our closest existing animal relatives are the bonobo and the common chimpanzee. In fact, 97 to 99 percent of human genetic material is the same as that of the chimpanzee. Therefore, it makes sense to study the other primates to learn more about ourselves. These are some methods primatologists use to study the great apes and their cousins:

Field Study

Some of the great names of primatology, like Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall, made field study famous. These scientists left human society, to a large degree, in order to study great ape society more closely. Field study, many believe, produces more genuine results than other approaches, because it studies its subjects as they actually live, while disturbing their behaviors as little as possible.

In field study, a scientist gets to know the subjects within their own society. He or she makes careful observations and keeps fulsome records, while trying to disturb the primate society as little as possible. This kind of research can give a startlingly clear picture of how a society works, though it may possibly be weak on some details of individual primate behavior. In field study, a scientist may sometimes have difficulty controlling confounding factors that can muddy data that he or she is after.

Laboratory Study

A laboratory setting is easier to control. An important element of research is separating the variable under study from factors that might improperly influence it. Therefore,

primates are sometimes removed from their natural setting, and studied within a context in which factors affecting results are either controlled or randomized. Studies that use primates directly as stand-ins for human subjects are by nature laboratory studies.

Many research institutions maintain colonies of primates intended for laboratory study, in order to provide subjects with uniform characteristics and background for scientists. Workers at such institutions tend to treat these animals well, and not only because they are rare and valuable. Primatologists recognize, perhaps more than the public does, that great apes and humans are close kin. Nevertheless, it is probable that removing chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates from their societies and natural settings does do them unavoidable harm.

Captive Settings

Studying primates in a captive setting is a method which incorporates some of the benefits of both laboratory and field study. It uses animals in a more natural setting in the expectation of observing behaviors that are more authentic. At the same time, it controls possible confounding factors by limiting unwanted influences on the animals.

A case can be made that the animals themselves may well benefit more from such a setting than from either alternative. The animals are well taken care of, and safe from their natural predators. They tend to live long healthy lives. At the same time, they are contributing to research that may in the end benefit all primates by increasing the world’s store of knowledge.


Some non-human primates make tools, and cooperate in hunting, food gathering, and child rearing. They seek status, and recognize their relatives even when they do not like them. They can manipulate and deceive. They have memories, and understand some concepts of mathematics. Many live in social groups, at least as successfully as humankind does.

They have childhoods. They are protected, nurtured, and taught during that period. They learn through play. Primatologists often focus on common aspects of human and other primate behavior in order to illuminate our own. Using the techniques of primatology, humans are able to see our own behavior more clearly by studying its reflection in the other great apes.