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Social cognition in monkeys

An EU team examined the relationship between cognitive capacity and social complexity in monkeys. Although differences between species of high and low social complexity were generally minor, high complexity species had advanced social cognition.
Social cognition in monkeys
According to Charles Darwin, and subsequent proof, humans share certain cognitive capacities with animals, while others are uniquely human. A social intelligence hypothesis may explain some of the differences, whereby cognitive capacity could relate to the complexity of various species’ social environments.

The EU-funded MACACOGNITUM (Evolution of cognition and primate social style) project tested the hypothesis. The team compared the cognitive abilities of several closely related species of monkey having varying levels of social complexity. Researchers planned to use standardised psychological tests, and a top-down experimental approach, to reveal the monkeys’ cognitive skills and the influence of social style. The results were intended to show the evolutionary history of cognitive traits in monkeys.

Researchers tested 39 macaques from three European sanctuaries or research centres using 16 cognitive tasks, one inhibitory control task and a temperament study.

Socially tolerant and non-tolerant species were comparable in physical cognition. However, tolerant macaques outperformed less tolerant species on certain social cognition tasks and on the inhibitory control task. Such results support the hypothesis that social tolerance is associated with more sophisticated cognition.

The team concluded that more advanced communicative cues and inhibitory control affect coordination and communication among individuals. A second conclusion was that the combined presence of social tolerance and strong bonds between unrelated individuals seems to particularly facilitate cooperation. The results illustrate a potential evolutionary history of human cooperation and cognition.

Project members presented the findings to the academic community via conferences and peer-reviewed journal publications. Additionally, the team communicated to a wider audience via other outreach events, such as a zoo open day, and school talks.

MACACOGNITUM’s results and new research synergies extended the excellence of European Research Area (ERA) studies. In particular, the results provide a possible window into the evolution of human and other primates’ minds.

Related information


Social cognition, social complexity, MACACOGNITUM, evolution, primate, social style
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