Why people (and chimps) throw temper tantrums

Primatologist Frans de Waal explains the primal instinct that unites humans and chimpanzees.

FRANS DE WAAL: When people lose control, like a tantrum, and start throwing stuff around. There's a famous scene of, I think, it's Steve Ballmer, who lost two of his main engineers to Google and threw chairs around in the office or something. That kind of descriptions exist. Or Nixon when he lost his position and started beating the rug and beating his own head. These tantrums that people sometimes throw, that usually has to do with frustrations, or loss of power, or at least the threat that that power is going to be diminished by somebody else.

And so a tantrum, it's like a two-year-old, basically. Grown men who turn into two-year-olds because they don't get what they want. And that happens. And that happens in chimpanzees also. Not only the tantrums of kids, they happen all the time, especially at weaning age. That's usually, for chimpanzees, at four years of age, the mother starts to push them away from the nipple, and then they throw enormous tantrums and make an enormous amount of noise. But also in adults. And so adult males will throw these tantrums, for example, when they lose their power. So you're the alpha male, and all of a sudden, there's a challenger who doesn't take you seriously anymore and throws rocks at you. And then at some point, if you cannot handle all the pressure, they're going to throw these tantrums, and they try to get the sympathy from the group, who then may support them, and they I think they hope that they will be supported back into their position. Although that almost never happens. So that happens.

And females may throw tantrums when their relationships are threatened. Actually, females are not so much into the power business in the sense that since their power often depends on age and personality, there's not much they can change about that, I think. And they don't just drop from power. That almost never happens. But females have close relationships. And if they have a fight with a good friend, that's where they become extremely emotional. If they have a fight with a rival, with a female that they don't care about, there's very little emotion. They're very cool about that. I just beat her up, and I don't look back at it. But if it is a good friend that they are close to and they have a disagreement with that friend, that is very upsetting, clearly. And they have a very strong emotional response to it. And they very often and I've never seen exceptions to that they very often then come together, and they reconcile, and they make up, and things like that.

  • Humans throw temper tantrums when they feel frustrated, lose power, or sense a threat to their status or security.
  • Chimpanzees exhibit the same behavior; alpha male chimps who lose their status throw tantrums to elicit sympathy from their group, hoping to have their power restored.
  • But that tactic almost never works, notes primatologist Frans de Waal. An important lesson for humans from chimps.

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