Alexandra Rosati, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Anthropology

What questions have you been tackling in your research?

The big question motivating my research concerns the evolutionary roots of the human mind. I am fascinated by how other animals think, and what that means for understanding our own species. In some ways humans seem very different from other animals, but in other ways we are incredibly similar. In the Cognition Evolution Group, my students and I study a variety of primate species including chimpanzees, macaques, lemurs, and of course humans! In our work, we in effect play games with animals to understand how they solve problems, and look at how their abilities are similar or different from humans. In many ways, we are like detectives, and the mysteries we have to solve are how these nonverbal (and sometimes very strange) creatures think about their world.

What are some of the most important findings from your work?

Our research revolves around three main themes: how do other species make complex decisions, how do they understand their social lives, and how do they develop and change over their lifespan? For example, humans are the only species to engage in economic behaviors like exchange and trade, so you might think the cognitive abilities underpinning these behaviors are unique to humans. But we’ve found that other animals have very complex decision-making skills as well. Apes show incredible abilities to delay gratification and wait for future rewards. Monkeys and apes can also make complex logical inferences about probabilities, which is important for figuring out optimal choices when faced with an uncertain world. We’ve been exploring the hypothesis that these abilities are really crucial for foraging—so even though chimpanzees don’t use credit cards, they still might need to understand the cost-benefit tradeoffs that go into such decisions. We take a similar approach to understanding social cognition in its natural context. Finally, one new area of our work concerns how these abilities emerge and change across the lifespan. Humans are special because we have a very slow, extended life history—and this is thought to shape when and how we acquire our cognitive abilities. But we really don’t know much about how other animals psychologically grow up and age. We are trying to understand how development unfolds in species with different life experiences and different life histories, to understand the function of developmental change in our own species. As part of this work, we collect data on ape health and behavior over the lifespan to see what is similar and different from humans.

How can we use this knowledge in our everyday lives?

Our work on development is helping us to understand what “natural” aging looks like. Our data allows us to connect individual variation in cognition and behavior to biological outcomes like health and survivorship. Another important application of our research is for primate welfare and conservation strategies. We partner with a variety of organizations focused on welfare and conservation, including the Duke Lemur Center and the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. Primates are disappearing from the world at an alarming rate, and our research showcases for the public how interesting these species are. Our cognitive studies also tell us a lot about animals’ preferences—which is critical for improving their welfare.  But I think a final important use of this research does not lie in its practical application per se. As Darwin said, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Understanding how human behavior and cognition evolved, and this perspective on humans as just one species embedded within a fantastic and wonderful primate tree, can help us understand our own place in the natural world. I think that has value in and of itself.

A free-ranging rhesus monkey at the Cayo Santiago Field Station in Puerto Rico participates in a cognitive study, with postdoctoral scholar Dr. Francesca de Petrillo and UM graduate student Rosemary Bettle.
A chimpanzee during a veterinary health check at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, with UM graduate student Rosemary Bettle, lab manager and UM alum Megan Cole, Dr. Alexandra Rosati, and veterinarian colleagues.