Two wolves press their noses against a fence, scenting a tray of food on the other side. A rope dangles within their reach — a clue to the puzzle. If only one wolf pulls the rope, it comes loose and no one gets the food. But if they tug together, the snack will be theirs.
This might seem like a test of plain-old smarts. Put two good problem-solvers together, and they can figure it out. But according to a , the wolves’ bond with each other — rather than either individual’s intent or mental abilities — matters most.
To find out, they presented wolf pairs with three tasks designed to measure cooperation. In the rope test, each duo coordinated to get a meaty morsel. In the other two tests, wolves made choices with no reward to themselves. They pushed a touch screen to give their partner a reward (or not), and took turns pushing a buzzer that sometimes gave both a snack, and sometimes only their partner.
Researchers also measured each wolf’s individual traits, such as self-control, learning speed, persistence, and understanding of cause-and-effect. When it came to cooperating, these qualities didn’t matter so much. The wolves’ social bond most strongly shaped their success, not any particular individual quality. The more positive the prior relationship between two wolves, the better they performed on all three tasks.
Scientists are still learning what drives cooperation in many species, but many hypothesize that “” plays a role. When individuals share positive experiences, they tend to associate each other with positive emotions. A mental record of good vibes makes cooperation more likely, as an automatic first response.