Human cognitive abilities are remarkable, but not exceptional. In light of evolution, humans are just an extreme primate on one end of an already-sophisticated spectrum. One hypothesis for explaining the evolution of primate cognition is that living in social groups selected for a “social mind”, a larger brain to aid in navigating a myriad of unique social challenges. If so, we might expect to see sophisticated decision-making that changes dependent upon the social context. My research addresses the overarching questions of how primates actually make decisions surrounding social challenges, in what contexts these decisions are adaptive, and the underlying mechanisms that may be responsible for these choices. I focus on decision-making during cooperation and conflict, two high risk contexts in which making the wrong choice can have significant fitness consequences. Specifically, my research addresses three complementary questions:
- How do primates make informed decisions when competing or cooperating with others?
- How does competition influence cooperative decisions both within and between groups?
- How do hormones influence social decisions in these two contexts?
Behavioral endocrinology, communication, cooperation, decision-making, evolution of social behavior, sexual selection, signaling, social cognition, primatology.
I am currently studying how primates make social decisions in a cooperative context, by examining the social and biological factors that influence cooperation in both captive and wild capuchin monkeys (Sapajus apella and Cebus capucinus). Specifically, I'm interested in:
- How do hormones influence social decisions? I am working on several projects examining the role of social hormones, specifically oxytocin, testosterone, and cortisol on social behavior and cooperative decision-making in capuchin monkeys.
- How does within-group dynamics influence social decisions? Most studies on decision-making in nonhuman primates have relied on how individuals behave when isolated (or in pairs) and when interacting with a human experimenter. This lack of external validity affects our understanding of how social animals actually make decisions within a social group. My research focuses on how capuchins make social decision using group-level paradigms that allow for comparing decision-making strategies in socially-housed captive monkeys and wild capuchins in Argentina and Costa Rica.
- How does competition influence social decisions? Studies on humans have shown that an individuals propensity to cooperate within group shifts with increased competition between groups. I am currently looking at how capuchin monkeys respond in cooperative task when faced with between-group competition in both captive primates, using a joint-pulling task, and wild primates in our newly developed field site in Costa Rica.
This research is funded by National Science Foundation SBE Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (SMA- 1714923), the National Science Foundation IBSS Interdisciplinary Research Grant (SMA- 1620391), the National Science Foundation Biological Anthropology Research Grant (BCS-73133571), the World Templeton Foundation, and Georgia State University (B&B Seed Grant)
How do gelada males make informed decisions about strangers?
For my dissertation I studied the interplay between individual recognition and the sexual selection in gelada monkeys (Theropithecus gelada) in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Specifically, my research focused on one putative sexually-selected signal for male geladas – the “loud call” vocalization used in male displays to determine if males assessed the competitive abilities of rivals based on the frequency, duration, or acoustic properties of these calls.
This research was funded by National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (BCS-1340911), the Leakey Foundation, and the University of Michigan.