Developmental shifts in social cognition: socioemotional biases across the lifespan in rhesus monkeys

Rosati, A.G., Arre, A.M., Platt, M.L., & Santos, L.R. (2018). Developmental shifts in social cognition: socioemotional biases across the lifespan in rhesus monkeys.Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 72: 63.

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Humans exhibit a suite of developmental changes in social cognition across the lifespan. To what extent are these developmental patterns unique? We first review several social domains in which humans undergo critical ontogenetic changes in socio-cognitive processing, including social attention and theory of mind. We then examine whether one human developmental transition—a shift in socioemotional preferences—also occurs in nonhuman primates. Specifically, we experimentally measured socioemotional processing in a large population of rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) ranging from infancy to old age. We tested whether macaques, like humans, also exhibited developmental shifts from a negativity bias at younger ages, indicating preferential attention to negative socioemotional stimuli, to a positivity bias at older ages. We first assessed monkeys’ (n = 337) responses to negative socioemotional stimuli by comparing their duration of looking towards photos of negative conspecific signals (threat displays) versus matched neutral expressions. In contrast to the pattern observed in humans, we found that older monkeys were more attentive to negative emotional stimuli than were younger monkeys. In a second study, we used the same method to examine monkeys’ (n = 132) attention to positive (affiliative displays) versus matched neutral expressions. Monkeys did not exhibit an overall preference for positive stimuli, nor major age-related changes in their attention. These results indicate that while monkeys show robust ontogenetic shifts in social preferences, they differ from humans by exhibiting an increasing negativity bias with age. Studies of comparative cognitive development can therefore provide insight into the evolutionary origins of human socio-cognitive development.