The social minds of humans and other apes
Department of Psychology, Durham University and Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Johns Hopkins University
Few traits characterise humans more profoundly than the complexity of our social lives, and the depth of our insights into the social and mental lives of others. To predict behaviour and make decisions in a dynamic and uncertain social world, we track others’ social relationships, evaluate others based on their behaviour or identity, and even attempt to infer their thoughts and emotions. That our potential social partners possess these skills, too, is precisely what makes the social world so complex. In turn, we must manage our reputation and relationships, adhere to the norms of our group, and strategically navigate manifold cooperative and competitive interactions. Cognition is at the heart of what makes social life so demanding and thus, to characterize the origins of human social complexity, we must understand the origins of our social cognition. I will present a series of comparative experiments with humans and our closest phylogenetic relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), aimed at identifying shared traits that were likely present 6-9 million years ago in our last common ancestor, as well as spotlighting unique features of the human mind. This work demonstrates that great apes, like humans, possess impressive knowledge of their social world: they remember social partners for decades, encode their dispositions and relationships, and even track their perspectives in surprisingly rich ways. Together, this body of research suggests that the roots of our social minds are discernible in the minds of our closest relatives, and extend deep into our evolutionary history.