Primate Conflicts Play Out in the Operating Room

Primate Conflicts Play Out in the Operating Room

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When primatologists observe chimpanzees, they take note of activities like fighting, playing, touching, and grooming. And it turns out you can learn a lot about humans—we are primates, after all—by observing the same behaviors in us. 

“Not grooming, but you know, who was nice to who, who complimented who, who talked to who, who flirted with who, all those kinds of things.” Laura Jones, an anthropologist at Emory University and Kaiser Permanente. 

The primates her team studied were surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists and other staff at three U.S. hospitals. The researchers observed 200 surgeries, while logging behaviors like cursing and cowering, stomping or head shaking, joking and singing, complimenting or flirting.

And they found that conflict in the OR surged when male surgeons’ teams were mostly male; or when female surgeons were with mostly female teams. “It would be a no-brainer if we found that all females were cooperative, but that’s not what we found.”

Instead, the highest levels of cooperation occurred when a female surgeon had a male surgical team, and vice versa—perhaps, Jones says, because those mixed teams avoided male–male or female–female conflict.

In fact previous studies in primates–both human and non-human–have shown that competition is strongest between individuals of the same gender. The surgery findings are in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Laura K. Jones et al., Ethological observations of social behavior in the operating room]

“I would say the most practical thing to do at this point would be using this to affect training. And of course encourage people, both men and women, to go into all the disciplines, because right now they’re heavily gendered.” Perhaps by diversifying the operating room we can leave chest-beating behaviors at the door. 

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]


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Jim Staab

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