Comparative studies on the evolution and ontogeny of primate socio-cognitive abilities revealed that while monkeys, apes and human toddlers have similar abilities in the physical domain, toddlers excel in the social domain. Social learning plays a key role in both nonhuman primates and humans, but despite basic commonalities, there are crucial differences. There is little evidence that nonhuman primates actively teach, with the intent to improve the skill or knowledge state of the pupil. Although they take great interest in the activities of others and thereby also learn from others, it is the recipients that retrieve information, and not the senders or teachers that intentionally provide this information.
The development of mental state attribution and joint intentionality have been proposed as crucial stepping-stones in the evolution of human culture. Monkeys and apes might also attribute some simple mental states such as perception and intentions to others, but the more complex forms such as the ascription of false beliefs and shared intentionality seem to be uniquely human. The cognitive and eventually neural underpinnings of these commonalities and differences are currently largely unknown.
In contrast to the limited understanding of the mental states of others, nonhuman primates are excellent observers of other group members and have a rich representation of their social world, which is highly valuable to predict the behaviors of others. The cognitive mechanisms supporting this extensive social knowledge, however, are still poorly understood.
The research conducted in this cluster will tackle the question whether the neurological and psychological bases of social cognition are different from other forms of cognition and may be guided along these exemplary questions:
- What are the mechanisms underpinning the processing of social stimuli and in which way do they mirror domain-general principles of allocation of attention?
- How domain-specific are social and causal reasoning, and where in the brain may they recruit domain-general mechanisms?
- How does social reasoning in moral judgments differ from domain-general judgments?