What TV-Watching Chimps Tell Us About Human Behavior

In NYC's Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill
In NYC's Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill

STUTTGART — Banbo is the first one to get the idea. The 11-year-old female chimpanzee presses her thumb firmly on the button and changes the channel on the TV set up in her enclosed living space. Fifteen-year-old Liboso is less certain and still sometimes presses her feet against the screen. The rest of the group prefers to watch from a distance.

Apes are not the easiest crowd when it comes to television, as American primate researcher Amy Parish has discovered at Stuttgart’s Wilhelma Zoo. The 47-year-old is using the zoo’s bonobos to study primates’ interaction with the small screen.

The zoo has installed the world’s first bonobo cinema, with a screen set into the wall of the enclosure and five large buttons that the chimps can use to change channel. They can flick between footage showing three different types of behavior: sex, play or aggression. The lead actors are always apes and one film shows the life of wild bonobos in the Congo.

Amy Parish has been working with bonobos for 23 years and has carried out research in many zoos across Europe and America. She already knows the Wilhelma Zoo, as she conducted research here for her doctorate in the 1990s. During that time she discovered that bonobos — which have DNA extremely similar to that of humans — form social groups in which the females are dominant.

“The power definitely lies with the women,” Parish tells us. But how does that power balance manifest itself when it comes to TV? That’s what Parish wants to find out in Stuttgart.

Her research project is financed by a private U.S. foundation. As both a primatologist and anthropologist, Parish hopes that her research could provide clues about how violent films affect behavior, even among humans.

A groundbreaking project

Parish’s experiments are not the first to set apes before the small screen. However, the unique aspect of the Stuttgart study is that the animals can press the buttons themselves and choose between different programs.

“It’s a global pilot project,” says Parish, and it could provide answers to some intriguing questions. Which programs are the apes most interested in? Do males show different preferences than females? How do tastes vary within a group?

At first Banbo needed a bit of time to find the on switch. The female bonobo comes from a zoo in Britain, where a few years ago researchers showed apes video footage of other animals. According to one of the keepers, films of predators met with “disapproval,” while smaller animals elicited a chorus of oohs and aahs. “When a snake came onto the screen, they panicked and ran away screaming. Then a bit later they crept back to check that the coast was clear.”

It seems that the bonobos showed a marked preference for cartoons and wildlife films. They loved action and bright colors but were bored by political shows. Apparently when the TV broke down and had to be repaired, the mechanic who brought it back was welcomed with applause.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!