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Mariska Kret: ‘The arrogance of thinking we’re better than animals is downright stupid’

Professor of Cognitive Psychology Mariska Kret studies how humans and animals express emotions. Comparisons between humans and great apes offer important evolutionary insights, Kret will say in her inaugural lecture on Friday 9 September.

Many of us still think humans are unique and ‘shine at the top of evolution,’ says Kret. Nonsense, because humans have few unique characteristics. ‘The arrogance of thinking we’re better than animals is downright stupid.’

Bonobo Kumbuka with daughter Ayebi behind a screen at Apenheul. Photo: Grietje Grootenhuis / Apenheul.

To study the evolution of social behaviour, Kret compares different animal species. Her research concentrates on humans, orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas. Despite a common ancestor, these species all have a unique social structure and evolutionary path. Kret: ‘A unique evolutionary past leads to unique characteristics and a shared ancestor to similarities in behaviour. Thinking about why we things the way we do them – why that is useful in the present or past – helps us understand why certain characteristics are found in some species but not others.’

Insight into emotional processes

Kret and her fellow researchers are using the latest methods to map the unique emotional characteristics of humans and great apes. Despite these methods, we still can’t measure emotions, not even in humans, Kret explains. ‘It’s commonly assumed that expressions of emotion are direct reflections of emotions and feelings. The reality is more complex.’ But researchers can gain insight into emotional processes in an implicit way.

In her research, Kret looks at physical changes in, for example, the face, posture, heart rate and pupil size of someone who is emotional. Together with Eliska Prochazkova, a PhD candidate at the time, she studied mimicry in humans on a first date. They recorded facial expressions, posture and physiological measurements such as heart rate. The physiological measurements turned out to be a particularly good predictor of the date’s success. ‘These uncontrollable signals speak the truth.’

Researchers will never be able to fully comprehend what another human or animal feels, Kret explains. But by paying close attention and using various measuring techniques they can explore these feelings as best they can. Kret: ‘This is the challenge of my work: getting ever closer to the feelings of others, be they chimpanzees or humans.’

Text: Tom Janssen
Banner photo: Pixabay

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