juvenile primate making a play face

Comparative & evolutionary psychology 

Explore our work in this field, one of 4 areas of expertise within our Psychology research

Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology is the scientific study of the origins of mind and behaviour. Our work explores the evolutionary processes underpinning human behaviour and the comparison of humans with other animals. We have particular expertise in comparative social and spatial cognition, emotion, communication and facial expression.

Within our Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, we investigate how evolution and development shape behaviour and cognition. We're interested in how social structures are formed and how we can apply evolutionary thinking to understand today's problems. 

Through a deeper understanding of the minds and behaviours of animals, we're exploring how humans have evolved – from how social structures are formed, to the ways in which evolutionary thinking can help solve the problems of today. Our research portal, Pure, has a full list of our staff and researchers working in this area.

We're also home to a specialist Dog Cognition Centre, where our work explores topics such as human-dog communication, visual perspective-taking and theory of mind, physical cognition, dogs’ cooperative interactions with other dogs and/or humans, and facial expression in dogs (DogFACS).

Our work covers the following topics

  • Evolution and development
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Social cognition and Emotion
  • Animal behaviour
  • Animal cognition
  • Animal welfare
  • Domestication and cognition
  • Primatology
  • Comparative psychology

Our research methods include behavioural and cognitive experiments, observational analysis of behaviour, and physiological measures such as heart rate monitoring, thermal imaging and cortisol analysis.

Partnerships and funding

Our partnerships include:

  • Monkey Haven on the Isle of Wight – in partnership with Monkey Haven, we conduct cognitive and behavioural studies with rescued primates
  • The Macaca Nigra Project in Indonesia – we're linked with this unique fieldsite to study the behaviour of wild crested macaques
  • The Donkey Sanctuary – we collaborate with the sanctuary on research into the behavioural and logistical support needed for global welfare projects
  • Zantiks Ltd – the only company that designs and builds customised behavioural testing environments for zebrafish, and our work is helping with their development

Our recent funders include the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Leverhulme Trust, Marie Curie, the British Academy , The Leakey Foundation, The Waltham Foundation and the Royal Society.

Animal field research

Field research allows us to examine the behaviours and abilities of primates and other animals within natural ecological and social settings.

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Field research on great apes, our closest living evolutionary relatives, is known to provide special insight into why humans behave the way they do, where evolutionary scenarios can be reconstructed and predictions on the adaptive significance of primate traits can be tested with methods of high ecological validity.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (in Borneo, Malaysia) and Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage (in Zambia) offer a special research opportunity to closely study free-ranging orangutans and semi-wild chimpanzees, respectively, in their natural forest environments.

Our projects focus on emotion, communication, personality and foraging cognition. A series of field studies have been conducted since 2007, which led to a large video collection on great apes. Projects are currently funded by The Royal Society and The Leakey Foundation.

As a result of deforestation, there is much need to improve reintroduction programs where rehabilitant animals are released back into their species-typical environment. A main challenge here is that too little is known about the behaviours and abilities of the species and the needs of the individuals.

The Psychology Department collaborates with the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) to carry out a large research project specifically designed to improve rehabilitation and releases of orangutans and sun bears (the world’s smallest bears!) in Sabah, Borneo.

In addition, one-year placements at BSBCC are offered to students with a strong interest in animal behaviour and conservation research, animal welfare and public engagement.

The Primate Behaviour and Ecology field course takes place each summer in Borneo, specifically in the midst of Kinabatangan’s rainforest, where wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, as well as other animals are studied.

During the course, basic field concepts and observational methodologies are introduced to students, to learn how to systematically assess behaviours of animals in the wild. The students carry out their own research projects, while they are closely supervised by the course coordinators.

Boat trips take place each morning and evening to observe the primates nearby the riverbanks of the Kinabatangan River. This rainforest has a high biodiversity in amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including nine nonhuman primate species.

For queries about field research opportunities or the data collection from previous field studies, please contact Marina Davila-Ross.

Field research opportunities are offered in collaboration with Chimfunshi wildlife orphanage, Zambia; Jabatan Hidupan Liar, Sabah; Danau Girang Field Centre, Borneo; Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC).


Publication highlights

Discover our areas of expertise

Comparative and evolutionary psychology is 1 of our areas of expertise in our Psychology research area. Explore the others below.

Interested in a PhD in Psychology?

Browse our postgraduate research degrees – including PhDs and MPhils – at our Psychology postgraduate research degrees page.


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