​Evolutionary Insights in Social Intelligence: How Can We Learn from the Bonobo?​
TWCF Number
Project Duration
June 1 / 2018
- December 31 / 2020
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
Amount Awarded

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Mariska Esther Kret
Institution Leiden University

What can our closest animal relatives teach us about empathy and cooperation?

Social intelligence requires profound emotion processing skills, empathy, and the capability to use social information for socially adaptive behavior. To improve social intelligence, it is essential to understand the underlying concepts, how they link together, and their evolutionary foundations. Expressions of emotion are vital for the communication of feelings and intentions. The accurate recognition of these signals fosters adequate behaviors and strengthens the bond between individuals, subsequently increasing survival chances.

Humans and their closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are well-adapted to recognize others’ expressions, possibly through facial mimicry, a phenomenon closely linked to empathy. But even though humans naturally empathize with others’ emotions, this does not always result in corresponding behavior. This is painfully illustrated by “the bystander effect,” in which individuals in a group avert their attention when confronted with an injured person or other victim.

Methodology and Outputs This project takes on that challenge by comparing humans’ social intelligence with that of chimpanzees and bonobos. Only one experimental study on emotions has been published hitherto, and few studies on bonobo cognition exist in general. To fill this knowledge gap, this project compares social intelligence among humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos with three objectives:

  • Investigate the relationship between empathy, mimicry and emotion recognition;
  • Gain insight into the evolution of cooperative behavior; and
  • Outline the implications and make recommendations for improving ourselves as a species.

The scientific and societal implications of this project will be communicated to the scientific community both through publications in scientific journals and presentations at conferences. I plan to reach general audiences through media distribution and a symposium at a zoo.


Project Resources
Abstract Physical attractiveness plays a crucial role in mate choice for both men and women. This is reflected in visual attention: people imm...
Attention may be swiftly and automatically tuned to emotional expressions in social primates, as has been demonstrated in humans, bonobos, and...
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Facial expressions are key to navigating social group life. The Power Asymmetry Hypothesis of Motivational Emancipation predicts that the type...
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Recognising conspecifics’ emotional expressions is important for nonhuman primates to navigate their physical and social environment. We addre...
Abstract Yawning is highly contagious, yet both its proximate mechanism(s) and its ultimate causation remain poorly understood. Scholars have ...
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A central premise of the science of comparative affect is that we can best learn about the causes and consequences of affect by comparing affe...
Abstract Cooperation forms the basis of our society and becomes increasingly essential during times of globalization. However, despite technol...
The eyes are extremely important in communication and can send a multitude of different messages. Someone's pupil size carries significant soc...
For social species, recognizing and adequately yet quickly responding to the emotions of others is crucial for their survival. The current stu...
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