University of Pennsylvania
Positive Neuroscience Positive Neuroscience
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The Evolutionary Origins of Altruistic Rewards:
A Comparative Behavioral Approach

Principal Investigator:

Laurie Santos, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology,
Director, Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Yale University

One of most counter-intuitive findings in the field of positive psychology is that observation that altruistic actions can increase happiness more than selfish actions. A central goal of positive neuroscience, then, is to explore how and why altruistic actions increase subjective well-being. In order to do so, researchers have begun exploring how altruistic actions are mediated by reward circuitry in the brain. Unfortunately, current research on neural basis of altruistic rewards suffers from a challenging methodological drawback: to date, there are no existing animal models of altruistic behavior. The proposed studies attempt to overcome this limitation by developing a behavioral science of altruistic behavior in two nonhuman primate species: rhesus macaques and capuchin monkeys. In fifteen studies, we examine whether two of these model primate species share human altruistic tendencies and whether they too experience rosocial actions as inherently rewarding. These studies will first provide important new insight into the evolutionary origins of human altruistic behaviors. More importantly, however, our studies will provide the behavioral insights needed to develop a neuroscientific animal model of human altruism. In doing so, the proposed studies will provide the behavioral insights needed to shed light on the neural basis of altruistic rewards.


Laurie Santos, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Yale University and the director of Yale University's Comparative Cognition Laboratory. Laurie received her B.A. in Psychology and Biology from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard. Her research explores the evolutionary origins of human cognition by studying the cognitive capacities present in nonhuman primates. She has investigated a number of topics in comparative cognition, including primates' understanding of others' minds, the origins of irrational decision-making, and the evolution of prosocial behavior. Laurie's scientific research has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Forbes, The New Yorker, New Scientist, Smithsonian, and Discover. She has also won numerous awards, both for her scientific achievements and for her teaching and mentorship. She is the recipient of Harvard University's George W. Goethals Award for Teaching Excellence, Yale University's Arthur Greer Memorial Prize for Outstanding Junior Faculty, and the Stanton Prize from the Society for Philosophy and Psychology for outstanding contributions to interdisciplinary research. She was recently voted one of Popular Science Magazine's "Brilliant 10" Young Minds.

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