My research examines the evolution of social cognition, using a comparative approach. Specifically, I am interested in why complex social abilities emerge across species, and how these cognitive abilities enable behaviors that are associated with human uniqueness– such as cooperation and culture. I combine both cognitive experiments and behavioral observations to examine these questions, primarily working with macaques at Cayo Santiago and the Trentham Monkey Forest. I also utilize interactive social paradigms to test humans (in-person and over mTurk), and have previously worked with chimpanzees, lemurs and vervet monkeys.

The evolutionary history of social cognition

Humans are characterised by our impressive social cognitive abilities, yet these abilities are shared –to some degree– with other primate species. I adapt techniques from developmental psychology (such as looking time methods used with infants) to examine these abilities in other primate species, and compare these abilities across species to elucidate the evolutionary contexts that promote the emergence of these skills. In particular, I am interested in the cognitive mechanisms underlying how primates respond to social information such as gaze, because gaze-following behaviours are foundational to the development of sophisticated social cognitive abilities in humans, yet are widely shared with other primate species.

Relevant publications:

  • Bettle, R & Rosati, A.G. (In press). The evolutionary origins of natural pedagogy: rhesus monkeys show sustained attention following nonsocial cues versus social communicative signals
  • Bettle, R., & Rosati, A. G. (2019). Flexible gaze-following in rhesus monkeys. Animal cognition, 1-14. [pdf]
  • Bettle, R. & Rosati, A.G. (2017) “Understanding other’s gaze.” In: Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science (T. Shackelford and V. Weekes-Shackelford, eds.) [pdf]
Running a cognitive test at Cayo Santiago

Social intelligence and behaviour

The relationship between social intelligence and ‘real-world’ social behavior is difficult to test but crucially important for proposals about the evolution of cognition. For example, do socially intelligent individuals form especially strong social bonds, display more sophisticated aggressive behavior, or successfully interact with a larger number of individuals? Using a combination of cognitive test batteries and behavioral observations, I am currently testing these hypotheses across two different macaque species that vary in tolerance– and hence may utilise social intelligence to enable different patterns of social behaviour. This ongoing project is funded by the Leakey Foundation.

A Barbary macaque and infant at the Trentham Monkey Forest

Unique features of human cognition

I am interested in the cognitive capacities that enable cultural and cooperative behaviours in humans. What is the role of cognitive mechanisms that may be unique to humans, such as joint attention and some forms of false-belief reasoning, in enabling these behaviours? Understanding the behavioural function of these cognitive abilities will better elucidate how they evolved. To probe these questions, I utilise behavioral economics tasks (both in-person and via mTurk), to establish how individual differences in social cognition predict behavior in these games.

Relevant publications:

  • Bettle, R & Rosati, A.G. (In press). The primate origins of human social cognition. Language Learning and Development.
  • Bettle, R. & Rosati, A.G. (2017) “Understanding other’s gaze.” In: Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science (T. Shackelford and V. Weekes-Shackelford, eds.) [pdf]