Adaptations for social cognition in the primate brain

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Feb 5;371(1687):20150096. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0096.


Studies of the factors affecting reproductive success in group-living monkeys have traditionally focused on competitive traits, like the acquisition of high dominance rank. Recent research, however, indicates that the ability to form cooperative social bonds has an equally strong effect on fitness. Two implications follow. First, strong social bonds make individuals' fitness interdependent and the 'free-rider' problem disappears. Second, individuals must make adaptive choices that balance competition and cooperation-often with the same partners. The proximate mechanisms underlying these behaviours are only just beginning to be understood. Recent results from cognitive and systems neuroscience provide us some evidence that many social and non-social decisions are mediated ultimately by abstract, domain-general neural mechanisms. However, other populations of neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, striatum, amygdala and parietal cortex specifically encode the type, importance and value of social information. Whether these specialized populations of neurons arise by selection or through developmental plasticity in response to the challenges of social life remains unknown. Many brain areas are homologous and show similar patterns of activity in human and non-human primates. In both groups, cortical activity is modulated by hormones like oxytocin and by the action of certain genes that may affect individual differences in behaviour. Taken together, results suggest that differences in cooperation between the two groups are a matter of degree rather than constituting a fundamental, qualitative distinction.

Keywords: cooperation; fitness; neuroethology; non-human primates; social cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Primates / physiology*
  • Primates / psychology*
  • Social Behavior*


  • Oxytocin