Origins of human social emotions (118)

Humans experience particular emotions that even our nearest primate relatives do not know. Where do these unique emotions come from-ontogenetically in the development of young children, and phylogenetically in the evolution of the human species?

All primates regulate their social interactions by expressing emotions toward others and by reading and reacting to the emotional expressions of others toward themselves.  Human primates have some special emotions and emotional expressions that reflect their unique forms of social engagement and organization. Of special importance are prosocial emotions such as empathy and gratitude, connected with uniquely human forms of cooperation and reciprocity. Also important are norm-related emotions such as moral indignation against norm violators and guilt and shame directed at the self for norm violations (and pride for special situations of norm compliance). The main question of our project is where these species-unique emotions come from ontogenetically, in the development of young children, and phylogenetically, in the evolution of the human species. In a series of studies with great apes and human children, we are looking for both similarities and differences in both the expression and recognition of these kinds of social emotions (apes from the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center).  Results will be used to make inferences about the evolutionary bases of humans' unique forms of social emotions and how these are integrated with humans' unique forms of social engagement and cultural organization in ontogeny.


Vaish, A., Warneken, F. (2011, Im Druck). Social-cognitive contributors to young children’s empathic and prosocial behavior. Decety, J. (Ed.). Empathy: From Bench to Bedside. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Vaish, A., Missana, M., Tomasello, M. (2011). Three-year-old children intervene in third-party moral transgressions. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 29 (1). 124-130.

Vaish, A., Carpenter, M., Tomasello, M. (2009). Sympathy through affective perspective-taking and its relation to prosocial behavior in toddlers. Developmental Psychology 45. 534-543. Reprinted in M. Killen, R. Coplan (Eds.), Social development in Childhood and Adolescence, 2010, Wiley-Blackwell.