strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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Apes in Elevators

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 18, 2011

I’m at a hotel in Chicago today, riding the elevator with my eyes fixed on the floor.  Primatologist Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago invited me to visit yesterday for a talk about my book The Species Seekers.  Dario has a new book of his own coming out next year, Games Primates Play (Basic Books), and his first chapter offers a very nice explanation of our odd behavior in elevators:

In horror movies, more people are probably murdered in elevators than in any other closed space, including the shower. In real life, the probability of being the victim of a deadly attack in an elevator is virtually zero. Yet, the way people act towards others when they ride together in an elevator suggests that they have serious concerns about their own safety.

If the elevator is crowded, everybody stands still and stares at the ceiling, the floor or the button panel as if they’ve never seen it before. If two strangers ride together in the elevator, they stand as far as possible from each other, don’t face each other directly, don’t make eye contact and don’t make any sudden movements or noises.

Much of people’s behavior in elevators is not the result of rational thinking. It’s an automatic, instinctive response to the situation. The threat of aggression is not real, yet our mind responds as if it is, and produces behaviors meant to protect ourselves.

Elevators are relatively recent inventions, but the social challenges they pose are nothing new. Close proximity to other people in restricted spaces is a situation that has occurred millions of times in the history of humankind.

Imagine two Paleolithic cavemen who follow the tracks of a large bear into the same small, dark cave. There is no bear in there, only the other hungry caveman ominously waving his club: clearly an awkward situation that requires an exit strategy. In those Paleolithic days, murder was an acceptable way to get out of socially awkward situations, much in the way we use an early morning doctor’s appointment as an excuse to leave a dinner party early. In the cave, one of the cavemen whacks the other over the head with his club and the party is over.

Similarly, when male chimpanzees in Uganda encounter a male from another group, they slash his throat and rip his testicles off — just in case he survives and has any future ambitions for reproduction.

Our minds evolved from the minds of the cavemen, and their minds, in turn, evolved from the minds of their primate ancestors — apes that looked a lot like chimpanzees. Some of our mental abilities appeared very recently in our evolutionary history — like our ability for abstract reasoning, language, love or spirituality. But the way primate minds respond to potentially dangerous social situations hasn’t changed in millions of years.

Evolution has been so conservative in this domain that the minds of humans, chimpanzees and even macaque monkeys — whose ancestors began diverging from ours 25 million years ago — still show traces of the original blueprint.

When two rhesus macaques are trapped together in a small cage, they try everything they can to avoid fighting. Moving with caution, acting indifferent and suppressing all the behaviors that could trigger aggression are good short-term solutions to the problem. The monkeys sit in a corner and avoid any random movements that might inadvertently cause a collision, because even a brief touch could be interpreted as the beginning of hostile action. Mutual eye contact must also be avoided because, in monkey language, staring is a threat.

The monkeys look up in the air, or at the ground, or stare at some imaginary point outside the cage. But as time passes, sitting still and feigning indifference are no longer sufficient to keep the situation under control. Tension between the prisoners builds, and sooner or later one of them will lose her temper.

To avoid immediate aggression, and also to reduce stress, an act of communication is needed to break the ice and make it clear to the other monkey that no harm is intended or expected. Macaque monkeys bare their teeth to communicate fear and friendly intentions. If this “bared-teeth display” — the evolutionary precursor of the human smile — is well received, it can be a prelude to grooming. One monkey brushes and cleans the other’s fur, gently massaging the skin and picking and eating parasites. Grooming can both relax and appease another monkey, virtually eliminating the chance of an attack. (You wouldn’t bite your masseuse, would you?)

So, if you are a rhesus macaque and find yourself trapped in a small cage with another macaque, you know what to do: Bare your teeth and start grooming. If you are a human and find yourself riding in an elevator with a stranger, I recommend you do the same: Smile and make polite conversation.

One morning when I was living on the 20th floor of a high-rise building I rode the elevator with a middle-aged man who seemed to be particularly intimidated by my presence. As I stepped in, he smiled nervously and started talking immediately. He talked nonstop and managed to give me his entire medical history, complete with symptoms, diagnoses and treatments, before we reached the ground floor. I doubt that this man expected to receive medical advice from me. Rather, he was clearly an insecure and emotionally vulnerable person who used massive verbal grooming to appease a perceived potential aggressor in a risky situation.

Not all my experiences are like this, of course. When I ride in an elevator with an attractive woman, I’m generally treated with indifference, which in this case is not a sign of fear or intimidation. When my girlfriend rides in an elevator with a man, the man often strikes up a conversation with her and ends up asking for her phone number. People’s responses to potential mating opportunities are just as predictable as their responses to potentially dangerous situations.

The beauty of human nature, however, is that although the average behavior of human beings can be scientifically predicted, there is a lot of unpredictable variation above and below the mean. Once, on the way up to my apartment, I met an old lady who got in the elevator on the second floor, pressed all the buttons from the third through the 22nd floor, and got out on the third floor with a grin on her face.


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