Associate Professor at Leiden University

Research grant from Dobberke Foundation for Comparative Psychology

The Dr. J. L. Dobberke Foundation for Comparative Psychology (KNAW) has awarded PhD student Evy van Berlo with a € 2000 grant for her project entitled Emotions and their Perceptions in Orangutans.

In her project, Evy aims to gain more insight into the emotional lives of orangutans. The swift recognition of emotional expressions helps us understand each other’s feelings and intentions, and this is particularly helpful when living in groups. Orangutans are the only great-ape species that do not permanently live in groups. However, orangutans socialize with other individuals, and we know that social interactions with conspecifics are crucial for the survival and development of infant orangutans. Furthermore, just like other great apes, young orangutans are known to mimic facial expressions of others during play. Compared to the other great-apes, orangutans are therefore likely capable to recognize the emotions of conspecifics, but so far our knowledge on this is limited. To investigate emotional expressions and their perception in this species further, Evy will train the orangutans living at primate park Apenheul on the usage of a touch screen, and let them perform the emotional dot-pobe task.

The emotional dot-probe task is a well-established experimental paradigm often used in the field of psychology. It measures immediate attention towards emotional scenes. That is, it indicates which stimuli capture the immediate attention of participants. From human studies we know that emotional stimuli capture attention faster than neutral scenes. We recently extended this line of research to our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, and found similar results. Due to their unique semi-solitary existence, Evy now wants to include orangutans, as they can provide a very interesting window into the evolutionary roots of empathy and emotions.

We sincerely thank the Dr. J. L. Dobberke Foundation for their invaluable financial support. Thanks to their contribution, it is possible to gather all the necessary stimulus materials and build a robust test setup. We thank  Eric Kilby for allowing us to use his picture for the cover image.

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