Making Sense of the Social Life of Primates
The Zulu people of South Africa have a saying that translates as “a person is a person through people”. For Dr. Louise Barrett, this isn’t just a proverb but the bedrock of her approach to psychology.
Barrett, Canada Research Chair in Cognition, Evolution and Behaviour, is aiming to discover how the actions of others help shape our social worlds—and therefore our psychology. She’s doing so by studying the social behaviour and cognition of both humans and our primate cousins in Canada and South Africa.
Primates are known for their intense sociability, which is thought to have shaped the ways in which we think about the world. Research in this field has usually considered that social information is processed solely inside the head. However, Barrett is emphasizing how physical or bodily engagement with the world—and with other individuals—can and should be considered as part of our psychology. In that respect, cognitive processes can be considered as both visible and social, and not just invisible and private.
In addition, Barrett is studying how various types of ‘social niches’ help shape psychology from infancy to adulthood, and how language and culture influence generate differences between humans and primates.
By challenging long-held beliefs about the way primates think and socialize, Barrett’s work is paving the way for new forms of psychology that could improve people’s social experiences by increasing the understanding of the social skills they need in a complex society.