Primate Vices: What Monkey Pornography and Celebrity Worship Tells Us About Human Nature

Scientists of all stripes have for years investigated the proclivities and behaviors of our primate cousins in order to gain insight into human behavior, and a recent study of rhesus macaques has added two more shared traits: the enjoyment of pornography and the worship of celebrities.


Here’s Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discussing the findings in this excerpt from his Floating University lecture:


While it might not be terribly surprising that an animal would choose to gaze at an image of a receptive female backside, the key component here is that the male macaques actually "paid" for the privilege. This elevates the reaction beyond mere biological stimulus and into the realm of desire and choice. Viewing an image of a fertile female provokes a gratifying response despite the lack of actionable mating activities and at the cost of delicious orange juice.

Furthermore, the male macaques also exchanged orange juice for the opportunity of viewing high-status males; one might expect that, when confronted with an alpha, a male monkey might exhibit aversion, but instead the test subjects actually preferred the "celebrity" to sugar.

What might the evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon be? Did the male macaques pay to see the dominant males as potential models for primate comportment? Most monkeys will never achieve that position in their social group, and remain in deference to alpha males, so it would seem unrealistic to infer that the celebrity worship has any beneficial emulative effect. And yet in the human world, male celebrities often define desirable male traits like affect, style, and body type, setting upper-tier expectations for successful courting characteristics.

There is a slight complication, however, according to an ABC Science piece on the study:

The study determined that when males look at high-status males they pay attention, but do not make sustained eye contact. Deaner says long looks could signal aggression and, under normal circumstances, could pose a potentially costly threat of violence.

When asked about the results of this study, Professor Colin Camerer of Caltech expressed no surprise about the "pornography" results,

[b]ut he is puzzled that males would pay with juice to see high-status males, but would not look at them for very long.

"It is like a star-struck fan who waits for hours to see a favourite movie star, say Brad Pitt, but then is so star-struck that she immediately averts her eyes downward shyly," Camerer says.

That analogy makes some intuitive sense when speaking of females, but why would the males exhibit this "star-struck" behavior? It suggests some degree of nascent emotional reaction to high-status males that goes beyond the bounds of mere social recognition. Are the monkeys envious? Is this evidence of homosocial cultural behavior in macaques? What does this say about male celebrity worship in humans, and vice versa? 

Visit The Floating University to learn more about our approach to disrupting higher education, or check out Paul Bloom's eSeminar "The Psychology of Everything: What Compassion, Racism, and Sex Have to Tell Us About Human Nature."

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