Like all primates, humans are intensely social, and that sociality lies at the heart of their success as a species. Yet sociality inevitably entails a central contradiction: how to maintain the social cohesion that is essential for cooperation in the face of the destructive forces of self-interest and the stresses of group-living. Punishment is one obvious solution that has been extensively explored in recent years. But negative strategies for social cohesion never work as well as positive strategies that enhance commitment to a community goal. In this project, we are investigating the mechanisms of social cohesion on the large scale.
For the past two decades, we have been engaged in a series of projects designed to understand, within a broad psychological and evolutionary perspective, the evolution of sociality in primates (including humans). These have focussed on understanding both the constraints on social group size (the Social Brain Hypothesis and the time budget models) and the structure and dynamics of contemporary human social networks. In the process, we have begun to understand the nature of dyadic relationships and the cognitive and time constraints that limit the number of relationships we can have.
There are two major issues that arise out of this work that we are now investigating. One is the cognitive and neurophysiological underpinnings of social bonding (based on the dual process cognition-plus-endorphins model of primate social bonding); the other is the implications these have for large scale social cohesion at the community level and above.
We continue to explore the evolution of the primate (and human) brain and the selection factors that have acted on it through geological time, seeking to understand both how human sociality arose historically in terms of the ecological selection pressures and constraints that acted on it. At the same time, we seek to determine the behavioural, cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms that underpin human sociality.
Our approach is multi-disciplinary, and includes comparative analyses, cognitive experimentation, economic games, genetics, neuroendocrinology, neuroimaging and agent based modelling. We have, and continue to develop, collaborations with a number of other international research groups whose interests intersect with ours.
We are based in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, and funded by a European Research Council Advanced Research Grant awarded to Professor Robin Dunbar.