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Multimodal communication in parent-infant interactions: A cross-species comparison of gibbons, chimpanzees and humans

Based on the attachment theory, multimodal signal exchange in parent-infant interactions will be studied. Results in this cross-species comparison might give insight in the evolution of emotional expressions.

Project No. G 406

Manuela Lembeck

The study aims at the investigation of parent-infant interaction within the first year of the infant’s life. These interactions mainly occur within the context of caring behavior and range from simple feeding duties to developing long-term social relationships in humans, as well as in other primates.

The main emphasis of the study is to examine the development of this social bond between parent and infant, the so-called "attachment", not only established and maintained by close proximity. In humans and non-human primates communication plays a crucial role, whereas primary attachment figure and infant need to learn how to exchange visual, tactile and vocal signals and interpret them correctly. E.g. the infant’s smile usually expresses contentment, whereas crying is a signal of distress. With increasing age of the infant a fine tuned communication system is established, providing a secure basis for the interaction with others. Moreover, it is assumed that early life experiences in parent-infant interaction promote the infant’s regulation of emotions, triggering development of signal use in social life.

This project will contribute to a better understanding of evolutionary roots of communication and emotion expression, using a cross-species approach to examine which communicative signals are shared by apes and humans and which might be unique to humans.


Evolutionary psychology


Prof. Dr. Katja Liebal