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(BBSRC DTP) Evolution of primate sociality: Conflict and coordination in great apes

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  • Full or part time
    Dr K Jensen
    Dr S Shulltz
    Dr Frank Podd
    Dr T Galla
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Group decision-making plays a critical role in the evolution of social cognition (Dunbar and Shultz 2017). Nonhuman primates are ideal models for understanding the evolution of coordination and conflict because of the complexity of their societies and the implications for human evolution. Pairs of chimpanzees, for instance, can coordinate to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes (e.g., Melis et al., 2006), yet almost nothing is known about how larger groups solve collective action problems. Chimpanzee coordination may be due to the pursuit of personal goals rather than collective decisions. For instance, chimpanzee prosocial behaviour, such as helping, is as a byproduct of self-regarding pursuits, with prosocial benefits arising as a by-product (Tennie, Jensen & Call, 2016). Humans, who are exceptionally skilled co-operators, struggle to solve collective action problems. While the assumption is that “many hands make short work,” both individuals and the groups themselves become less efficient and less productive as group size increases (Ringelmann Effect). This may be due to decreasing effort and motivation with group size, or it may be that coordination problems increase with group size. In addition to motivation and coordination problems, difficulty in consensus can also result where an optimal collective decision may be in conflict with individual preferences. The key goal of this project is to determine the maximum group size that can be maintained by chimpanzees in a cooperative paradigm and how they solve collective action problems when outside options are available or not. When conflicts arise from coordination failure, free-riding or non-conformity, punishment can be used to correct behaviour and improving group outcomes. Yet evidence for this sort of behaviour correction in nonhuman primates is limited (Jensen, Call &Tomasello, 2007). An important component of the project will be examining how chimpanzees respond to free-riding and noncomformity in group settings. Finally, the project will seek to understand the motivational basis for conflicts and how these are resolved. A dominant theory is that post-conflict behaviour functions to restore relationships, but this might be a byproduct of self-motivated comfort seeking. An important aspect of all of these projects is the role of social networks (and networks more broadly) in providing a predictive model for information dissemination and consensus building. The PhD student will be trained in social network and phylogenetic analyses, observational and experimental methods, as well as engineering test equipment.

Funding Notes

This project is to be funded under the BBSRC Doctoral Training Programme. If you are interested in this project, please make direct contact with the Principal Supervisor to arrange to discuss the project further as soon as possible. You MUST also submit an online application form - full details on how to apply can be found on the BBSRC DTP website

Applications are invited from UK/EU nationals only. Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, at least an upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject.


Dunbar, R.I.M.D, Shultz, S. (2017) Why are there so many explanations for primate brain evolution? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 372, 1727.

Jensen, K., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 13046-13050.

Melis, A. P., Hare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Engineering cooperation in chimpanzees: Tolerance constraints on cooperation. Animal Behaviour, 72, 275-286.

Tennie, C., Jensen, K., & Call, J. (2016). The nature of prosociality in chimpanzees. Nature Communications, 7, 13915

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