Warneken Lab

Welcome to the Social Cognitive Development Group at Harvard University

Back row left to right: Felix Warneken, Alex Was, Anna-Lee Stafford, Samuel Ronfard, Monica Burns

Front row left to right: Sharanya Misra Sharma, Charles Williams, Natalie Benjamin, Annie Spokes, Erika Chan, Emily Lydic

Not pictured: Kate Hobbs, Ann Finkel

Human social life involves complex interactions between individuals working together. For example, even a very simple interaction like holding a door open for another person requires understanding what that person wants, as well as a desire to help them. Other interactions, such as building a monument, requires that larger groups divide their labor and work together to achieve a joint goal. Although these types of helping and collaborative behaviors are common in humans, they are not in other species. How and why do humans cooperate in these various ways—and what cognitive skills allow them to do so? Our research group addresses this broad question in three ways:

  • What are the earliest forms of cooperation?

A major focus of our research concerned the cooperative abilities of very young children. Does human-like cooperation require language or extensive moral education? Research thus far indicates that infants in the second year of life already engage in various forms of altruistic behaviors such as helping others with their problems or sharing resources with them, suggesting that human infants may have a biologically based predisposition for altruism.

  • What factors shape cooperation across development?

Although young infants do cooperate in variety of contexts, their behavior also differs from that of adults in many ways. What allows children to cooperate in more adult-like fashion? This aspect of our research focuses on the impact of factors like moral instruction and understanding of norms on cooperation in childhood.

  • What is the evolutionary basis of human cooperation?

Developmental research by our group is complemented by collaborative projects examining our closest living primate relatives, the great apes. Such research is crucial to disentangle the aspects of human cognition that are unique, and to date few such studies have examined cooperative abilities in other apes. So far, our research suggests that some forms of human-like cooperation—such as helping out others in need—to appear to be shared with chimpanzees.

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