How do unpopular monkeys cope with their low social status? According to new research, it seems they turn to comfort food (in this case, banana-flavoured food pellets).
In general, low-status rhesus monkeys tend to eat less than their superiors, likely because “the anxiety of constantly toadying to their social superiors seems to curb [their] appetite,” writes John Tierney of the New York Times. But when a group of rhesus monkeys was offered a constant supply of sugary, banana-flavoured pellets (monkey junk food), the subordinate monkeys pigged out, eating far more than their popular peers.
“Monkeys’ cravings aren’t so complicated,” Tierney writes of the study, which was led by neuroscientist Mark Wilson of Emory University. “The female monkeys weren’t dieters who tasted one forbidden food and then couldn’t stop themselves from binging. They were not rebelling against the thin mandate from tyrannical fashion magazines. They weren’t choosing junk food because they couldn’t find healthier fare. They weren’t seduced by commercials telling them they deserved a break today.”
Which makes the reasons behind the monkeys’ binge all the more fascinating. Researchers believe the high-calorie banana pellets could have blocked the unpopular monkeys’ stress response, or maybe even activated reward pathways in the brain (just like cocaine, which releases dopamine).
As anyone who’s raided the fridge after a long day can attest, humans often snack when they’re stressed out, too. One study of British civil servants showed those who were low status were more prone to obesity, among other negative health conditions.
“Female humans report that they eat high-calorie foods to make themselves feel better when stressed,” Dr. Debra A. Zellner, a psychologist at Montclair State University, tells the NYT. Unfortunately, humans and monkeys differ in one important way: guilt. “[Women] actually don’t feel better after eating them,” she says. “They feel guilt and actually feel worse. Female monkeys don’t have that cognitive baggage.”