Whenever I find myself in a contentious academic meeting or see clips of Congress trying to kill a bill, I am reminded of capuchin monkeys.

Don’t get me wrong –I respect my colleagues, and don’t consider politicians to be sub-human. It’s just that the monkeys I have devoted so much of my life to studying exhibit extraordinarily sophisticated political strategies that mirror the machinations so common in human workplaces where conflicts erupt.

A quarter century ago, when I first traveled to Costa Rica to study capuchin monkeys, I had no idea how impressive they’d be. Now, with 25 years of behavioral data collection behind me encompassing five generations and 12 groups of monkeys, I have come to know a great deal about these astonishing animals and the society they have built.

One remarkable aspect of capuchin society is the emphasis on stability and order. Despite the capuchin tendency to “back talk” to authority rather than submit, there are clear rank relationships. Among capuchin males, as in a typical human corporation, there is an “alpha” male who clearly dominates everyone else in the group. However, there is not necessarily a clear ranking among the remaining males. Rank relationships among the youngsters are constantly changing and are somewhat influenced by who is related to whom, as relatives intervene often in fights among younger monkeys.

Capuchins exhibit a firm tendency to reinforce the status quo: when they see a fight between members of the same sex, they support the higher-ranking individual some 85 percent of the time.

This rule does not apply, however, when males are fighting females. In these situations, both male and female bystanders support the lower-ranking female.

Why? The answer may lie in the genetic structure of the group. Capuchin females are intensely loyal to their female kin and remain with them for the duration of their lifetimes. Males are more fickle, typically leaving their birth group to seek their fortunes elsewhere by the time they are adults. Female kin-based alliances form the backbone of these monkeys’ political structure, and females can truly count on one another for political support in a way that males cannot. So, coalitions of females often defeat individual males in squabbles over access to food, despite their inferior weaponry (i.e., smaller canine teeth).

The alpha male is the preferred ally of practically everyone. He receives more grooming and social support than the other males, and he does almost all of the breeding. New alpha males typically kill nursing infants that were fathered by their predecessors, because this hastens the females’ return to breeding condition, allowing the alpha male to get an earlier start on his reproductive career. Therefore, political turnover is devastating to females (who lose their infants), as well as to males (who often die in the process of fighting for the rights to become the new breeding male).

All parties, to an unusual degree in the animal kingdom, have a vested interest in stability. An alpha male often remains in power longer than any U.S. president ever has, reigning up to 18 years, or three generations. This is astonishing even by human standards. What gives an alpha male this kind of power?

A capuchin is pretty decrepit by the end of an 18-year tenure as alpha male – clearly no match in physical combat to the many prime-aged males who are roaming the environment looking for an opportunity to rise to power. But in capuchins, as in humans, a good measure of social intellect – of the ability to manage one’s allies – can be an effective substitute for prowess in physical combat. Sons appear to enhance an alpha male’s ability to hang on to his power. Sons seem loathe to leave their families as long as their father is still in power and prove tremendously useful in helping Dad ward off immigration attempts by foreign males. It’s a dynastic dynamic that human monarchs might envy, as capuchin sons’ loyalty often exceeds that of princes eager to inherit the throne as early as possible (like Henry II’s sons).

When a monkey is in a fight, it will survey the other monkeys standing around and request assistance from someone who is both higher ranking and a closer friend to it than to its opponent. Capuchins readily grasp these subtleties about relationships, perhaps remembering the patterns of past support they have witnessed, and use this political information strategically. Their cognitive sophistication with regard to political strategizing was one of the surprises that emerged from my research, because New World primates had been assumed to lack such abilities.


In general, capuchins (like humans) are highly xenophobic, viewing members of other social groups as enemies. But there is nothing like a common enemy to solidify relationships within a group. Even when two males are locked in a chronic struggle for the alpha position, wounding one another and viewing one another with the greatest suspicion, they will drop all animosity towards one another as soon as a male from an enemy group shows up. . Perhaps it is not so different from the way some human leaders focus attention on foreign threats, real or imagined, to strengthen social cohesion when the going gets tough on the home front.

One way in which capuchin politics differs from the human version becomes apparent in election season. We humans take advantage of our language and capacity for long-distance communication technology to form alliances that include people we have never met. This social and communicative complexity enables layers of deception, particularly regarding promises for the future.

We don’t see such deception or promises in monkey society. In capuchins, decisions about whom to support are based on their accumulated knowledge of each group member’s behavior in past situations. In other words, they choose based on records of behavior, not TV ads.

Monkey politics is, thus, truly local. And most of it is transparent. In monkey society, the most important social interactions happen out in the open, instead of behind closed doors.

Susan Perry is a professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of the book Manipulative Monkeys: The Capuchins of Lomas Barbudal. She is founder and director of the Lomas Barbudal Monkey Project. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

Originally Published at Zocalo Public Square.