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Attentional Bias in Humans Toward Human and Bonobo Expressions of Emotion
Evolutionary Psychology  (IF1.506),  Pub Date : 2021-07-28, DOI: 10.1177/14747049211032816
Mariska E. Kret, Evy van Berlo

Correctly recognizing and efficiently attending to emotional situations are highly valuable skills for social species such as humans and bonobos, humans' closest living relatives. In the current study, we investigated whether humans perceive a range of emotional situations differently when these involved other humans compared to bonobos. A large group of children and adults participated in an emotion perception task and rated scenes showing either bonobos or humans in situations depicting distressed or aggressive behavior, yawning, scratching, grooming, playing, sex scenes or neutral situations. A new group of people performed a dot-probe task to assess attentional biases toward these materials. The main finding is that humans perceive emotional scenes showing people similarly as emotional scenes of bonobos, a result reflecting a shared evolutionary origin of emotional expressions. Other results show that children interpreted bonobos’ bared teeth displays as a positive signal. This signal is related to the human smile, but is frequently seen in distressed situations, as was the case in the current experiment. Children may still need to learn to use contextual cues when judging an ambiguous expression as positive or negative. Further, the sex scenes were rated very positively, especially by male participants. Even though they rated these more positively than women, their attention was captured similarly, surpassing all other emotion categories. Finally, humans’ attention was captured more by human yawns than by bonobo yawns, which may be related to the highly contagious nature of yawns, especially when shown by close others. The current research adds to earlier work showing morphological, behavioral and genetic parallels between humans and bonobos by showing that their emotional expressions have a common origin too.