Multiscreening wrecks family bonding, study of apes indicates

Henry Bodkin
More fun together - Corbis RF Stills

In many modern households, “family time” now amounts to little more than members congregating in the living room while continuing to pore over their individual screens.

However, a new study now suggests that being together has little bonding value unless everyone is watching the same thing.

The crucial clues have come not from observations of humans, but from a series of experiments using chimpanzees and apes.

The results indicate that participating in a shared experience in order to feel closer to one another is not a social construct but instead is rooted in evolution.

Scientists in the US placed pairs of chimpanzees in front a film and subsequently analysed how well they interacted socially.

They then compared this with the social interaction between primates who had been placed next to each other but showed different films.

Those in the first category showed much more interest in each other and were inclined to spend a lot more time together.

A second experiment was conducted along the same lines, instead involving chimpanzees or bonobo apes and humans.

Again, the primates who had watched the same film as the humans became more socially interested in them than those who had watched a separate clip.

From dancing, playing music or sport together, the list of activities humans take part in for the sake of bonding with each other is virtually endless, and until now there was no evidence that the psychological mechanisms involved existed elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

“The current results demonstrate that on a basic level, socially relating to others via shared experiences seems not to be uniquely human but instead deeply rooted in our evolutionary history,” the authors at Duke University wrote.

They added that “some of the basic elements of this social bonding mechanism - eliciting social closeness by visually attending to something together with another individual - are present in humans through shared descent with other apes.”

The primates in the study were encouraged to face the screens by being offered tubes with diluted grape juice.

They were shown films of juvenile chimpanzees at play.

The authors say that because primates have now shown they possess the psychological mechanisms necessary to bond over a shared experience, it is possible that other activities, such as fighting, are sometimes done for the sake of bonding rather than for purely practical purposes.

The new study is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.