21 Social Relationships, Social Cognition, and the Evolution of Mind in Primates

Behavioral Neuroscience

  1. Robert M. Seyfarth PhD,
  2. Dorothy L. Cheney PhD

Published Online: 26 SEP 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781118133880.hop203021

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition

How to Cite

Seyfarth, R. M. and Cheney, D. L. 2012. Social Relationships, Social Cognition, and the Evolution of Mind in Primates. Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition. 3:21.

Author Information

  1. University of Pennsylvania, Departments of Psychology and Biology, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 SEP 2012


During the past 20 years, research on cognition in primates and other animals has shifted from the laboratory to the field—from studies of animals' knowledge of objects to research on what they know about each other. Primates and many other animals live in rich, complex societies where animals form highly differentiated relationships and selection has favored the formation of enduring, long-term bonds. As a result, the social environment is characterized by predictable patterns of interaction: statistical regularities that an individual must recognize if she is to predict other animals' behavior. In nonhuman primates, social cognition has several striking properties. It involves the formation of concepts, and is computational: Individuals recognize others based on discrete-value traits (rank, kinship) and classify individuals along multiple dimensions simultaneously. Social knowledge is rule-governed and open-ended: Vocalizations follow specific rules of delivery, and the classification of others by kinship and rank persists despite changes in the individuals involved. Finally, social knowledge involves the attribution of motives and implicit theories of causality. Individuals know when a vocalization is directed at them, and when calls from two individuals are heard together listeners assume that one has caused the other. At present, we do not know whether primate social knowledge is qualitatively different from that in other species: The comparative study of social cognition in animals remains a work in progress. For all its richness, nonhuman primate social cognition remains strikingly different from that found in humans.


  • animals;
  • primates;
  • cognition;
  • social behavior;
  • social knowledge