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Conferencia magistral (Dra. Francesca De Petrillo)

How does decision-making evolve? A comparative analysis of primate choices


Dr. Francesca De Petrillo comes from a small rural village in the South of Italy and became passionate about animal behaviour and cognition when she was six years old. She received her Ph.D. in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, with a focus on Anthropology, from the University Sapienza of Rome, Italy, where she compared economic decision-making strategies across adults, young children, and non-human primate species to shed light on the evolutionary origins and developmental trajectories of human decision-making. She then completed two postdoctoral fellowships, first at Harvard University and the University of Michigan, and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France. During this period, she compared decision-making and cognitive control across multiple primate species, including rhesus macaques, Barbary macaques, and lemurs, to test how socioecology shapes cognition. Currently, she is a lecturer in Psychology at the School of Psychology at Newcastle University in the UK. Her research seeks to elucidate how different species acquire and process information from the physical and the social world and whether variation in cognitive abilities, including decision strategies, relates to differences in life history, ecology, and social structure. She addresses these questions by studying the cognitive abilities supporting decision-making and executive control of different primate populations, including captive brown capuchin monkeys, free-ranging populations of macaques, and different species of lemurs. Other aspects of her research examine the origins of monetary systems, specifically whether the ability to categorize money can be traced back to non-human primates. To do so, she analyses the exchange behaviour of brown tufted capuchin monkeys.


Both human and non-human animals face a myriad of choices every day: what food to eat, where to spend their time, and with whom to mate or to interact with. Comparative studies of decision-making have revealed important variability across different species’ decision-making strategies. What governs the variation in decision-making strategies seen across the natural world? To answer this question, I will present a series of comparative studies examining decision-making under risk, probabilistic reasoning, logical inferences and cognitive control in tufted capuchin monkeys, rhesus macaques and lemurs, respectively. The results of these studies suggest that ecological complexity consistently predicts differences across species’ decision strategies and cognitive abilities, thereby highlighting how comparative studies can provide critical insights into the evolutionary contexts that favor some kinds of decision-making strategies over others.

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