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Author: Annemieke Groenenboom

Like apes, people need to engage in more ‘grooming’ to foster social connections,” advises ape and organisational expert Patrick van Veen to the participants of the Preventive Health Congress. Each participant is a professional working towards a healthier society, but is that collaboration taking place in an impactful manner?

“We often think that we collaborate well, but in practice, I see many social structures with little impact.” explains Patrick van Veen. As the founder of Apemanagement, he has been delving into the parallels between the behaviour of apes and (human) organisations for years. “In biology, we distinguish several ways of living together. The most obvious is cooperation, where you explore what you can do for each other and how you can develop together. In practice, I more often see a different form, predominantly coexistence.”

”We often think that we collaborate well, but in practice, I see many social structures with little impact.”

“Coexistence is a way of living together in which you make use of each other’s expertise but with little development. Think of a bird on the neck of a giraffe picking ticks and parasites from its fur. They benefit from each other’s services – food for the bird, convenience for the giraffe – but in 5 years, they are still doing the same.”

Professionals attending the Preventive Health Congress collaborate to reduce health disparities for people in vulnerable positions. Van Veen says, ‘’If you want to achieve real impact, question how you collaborate. For instance, do you jointly sign an agreement and then continue to pursue your own agenda (coexistence), or do you collectively achieve results that you cannot accomplish alone (cooperation)?’’

A question of loyalty

The low impact of many social structures, according to Van Veen, is the result of loyalty conflicts: ‘’Today, your loyalty is towards the people you talk to in meeting A, but tomorrow it shifts to the people in meeting B. To make progress in practice, you depend on many people, but they themselves have different loyalties, often leading to a dilemma. If you want change, you need to discuss this together.’’

“An example: Scientists are judged based on publications, often in English. Policymakers are not accustomed to reading such texts. Yet, scientists don’t often create a Dutch version because their primary loyalty lies with the research. The result: much valuable information remains unused. It’s these small mechanisms that need to be addressed. How can you better utilize each other’s expertise?’’

Do as apes do: more grooming

Like apes, we need to do more ‘grooming.’ In simple human terms: have coffee together more often. Van Veen says, “You can only influence behaviour if you understand it, but for that to happen, you need to speak to each other. For example, at a conference, seek out people you don’t know, or go into the community to talk to your target audience. Research on Japanese Macaques clearly illustrates what this can yield. Researchers threw potatoes on the beach. All the monkeys picked them up, but one washed them before eating, and another ended up with a mouthful of sand. The same happens with people: someone on the right invents the wheel that someone on the left is already using.”

”Like apes, we need to do more ‘grooming.’ You can only influence behaviour if you understand it, but for that to happen, you need to speak to each other.”

“In that regard, we can learn a lot from marketers and teenagers,” Van Veen continues. “Marketers engage with everyone and gain many new insights. Teenagers are more willing to take risks than adults and have fewer social inhibitions. While adults become more cautious over the years—especially in social structures—it’s the opposite for teenagers. We adults often focus so much on productivity and concentration that we give ourselves little room for exploration. Let’s start that here at this conference.”


Want to hear more from Patrick van der Veen? Join us on the 7th of december for our annual Preventive Heath Conference, with insights from 20+ brilliant speakers, interdisciplinary discussions, invaluable insights, and strategies to promote effective preventive health practices. Join keynote speaker Patrick van Veen as he talks about the importance of collaboration to reach impactful results. But do we cooperate in an effective way, or do we just coexist? By looking at examples in the animal kingdom, he will make you laugh, but also leave you with new insights about transdisciplinary research.