Social Contagion in Common Marmosets (Callithrix jacchus): Implications for Cognition, Culture and Welfare - PhDData

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Social Contagion in Common Marmosets (Callithrix jacchus): Implications for Cognition, Culture and Welfare

The thesis was published by Watson, Claire F I, in September 2022, University of Stirling.


The social transmission of social behaviours in nonhuman primates has been understudied, experimentally, relative to instrumental, food-related behaviours. This is disproportional in relation to the comparatively high percentage of potential social traditions reported in wild primates. I report a systematic survey of the social learning literature and provide quantitative evidence of the discrepancy (Watson and Caldwell, 2009). Addressing the identified deficit in experimental work on social behaviours, I also report three empirical studies investigating the contagious nature of affective states in captive, socially housed marmosets.

I carried out an observational study, to determine whether marmosets are influenced by spontaneously produced neighbour calls to perform a range of behaviours associated with similar affect. My results supported a neighbour effect for anxiety in marmosets. Consistent with previous findings for chimpanzees (Baker and Aureli, 1996; Videan et al., 2005), I also found evidence for neighbour effects for aggression and affiliation (Watson and Caldwell, 2010). Through experimental playback, I investigated contingent social contagion in the auditory and visual modalities. The playback of pre-recorded affiliative (chirp) calls was found to be associated with marmosets spending increased time in a range of affiliative behaviours. Playback of video showing conspecifics engaged in a positive affiliative behaviour (allogrooming) also appeared to cause marmosets to spend longer performing various affiliative behaviours. My results indicate that social contagion of affiliation is a multi-modal phenomenon in marmosets and also represent the first evidence that allogrooming is visually contagious in primates.

Sapolsky (2006) conceptualised culture as the performance of species-typical behaviours to an unusual extent, termed ‘social culture’. Researchers have yet to directly investigate a transmission mechanism. I investigated whether a social culture of increased affiliation could be initiated in marmosets through the long-term playback, of positive calls, or of video of positive behaviour. The results were consistent with a relatively long-lasting influence of the playback of affiliative calls across several affiliative behaviours. The effect appeared to last substantially beyond the specific hours of playback, between playbacks, and after playback had ceased, potentially indicating a temporary shift in social culture. These results are preliminary but provide some support for the proposal that auditory social contagion may be a transmission mechanism for social culture. The long-term video playback of allogrooming appeared to result in a transitory shift in performance of the identical behaviour (increased allogrooming) after playbacks had ceased.

In addition to theoretical implications for social cognition and social culture, my findings have potential practical application for the enhancement of welfare in captive marmosets through sensory, and non-contact social, enrichment.

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