MONKEY MINDREADING: exploring primate psychology


            “Look at Fido! He feels guilty for going to the bathroom on the carpet! He knows he did something wrong.” At some point in your life, I bet you’ve uttered statements like these. But even though we all see something familiar in the eyes and behaviors of other animals, are we justified in claiming that animals feel shame, experience joy, or are manipulative? Can we really know what’s going on in their minds?

            For centuries, psychologists, animal behaviorists, and philosophers have attempted to understand what other animals think and feel. Of particular interest are the minds of our closest evolutionary relatives, the primates. In this course, we will examine research aimed at exposing the mental lives of apes, monkeys, and lemurs, and discuss how this research can provide insight into our own psychology. Though we will predominantly focus on primates, we will also examine research with animals like dolphins, birds, and dogs to determine how prevalent abilities like self-awareness, theory of mind, and deception are outside the primate order.

            Our course materials will come from evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology journals and books, popular magazines, videos, and podcasts. You will learn to use writing as a way to process information and explore ideas and how to write academic papers that follow scientific conventions. You will write two short papers in the first half of the semester that will enable you to assess the evidence for specific cognitive abilities in primates, and determine whether primates are cognitively unique among other animals. In the second half of the semester, you will take on the role of monkey mindreaders by collaboratively designing a study that sheds light on an unresolved aspect of primate psychology and writing a scientific research proposal. Throughout the semester, you will also take part in a fundamental element of academic writing, the peer-review process, by reading each other’s work and providing feedback for revisions.