High-status monkeys ignore the interests of riff-raff

Where we look often reveals our interests and intentions. Consequently, we often look toward others and follow their gaze to the objects to which they give visual attention. Like humans, monkeys pay attention to the eyes of individuals within their groups; in the laboratory, they respond more quickly to a target when they have seen another individual look at it. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center now demonstrate that social status strongly determines how monkeys deploy their attention to others: high-status monkeys are slower and more selective about whose gaze they follow than are low-status monkeys.

In the current study, Stephen Shepherd, Robert Deaner, and Michael Platt examined the time course of attention when male macaques saw other high- or low-status male macaques looking toward or away from a target. They found that low-status monkeys shifted attention to the target within a tenth of a second after seeing another monkey do so. High-status monkeys, however, were half as fast and only followed the gaze of other dominant monkeys.

The findings indicate that gaze-following in monkeys is composed of both reflexive and voluntary elements, and they also demonstrate that social status of an individual gates that individual's deployment of social attention. The study results further suggest that biological correlates of high social status, such as elevated levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, may suppress so-called "social vigilance," which is high in low-status males that readily follow the gaze of others.

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The researchers include Stephen V. Shepherd, Robert O. Deaner, and Michael L. Platt of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. This work was supported by MH066259 (M.L.P.), the Cure Autism Now Foundation (M.L.P.), and a postdoctoral NRSA (R.O.D.).

Shepherd et al.: "Social status gates social attention in monkeys." Publishing in Current Biology 16, R119-R120, February 21, 2006. www.current-biology.com


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