Laurie Santos


principal investigator

Laurie Santos
Associate Professor, Psychology
Department of Psychology
Yale University

Laurie Santos is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale University and the director of Yale University’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory. Laurie received her B.A. in Psychology and Biology from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard. Her research explores the evolutionary origins of human cognition by studying the cognitive capacities present in non-human primates. She has investigated a number of topics in comparative cognition, including primates’ understanding of others’ minds, the origins of irrational decision-making, and the evolution of prosocial behavior. Laurie’s scientific research has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Forbes, The New Yorker, New Scientist, Smithsonian, and Discover. She has also won numerous awards, both for her scientific achievements and for her teaching and mentorship. She is the recipient of Harvard University’s George W. Goethals Award for Teaching Excellence, Yale University’s Arthur Greer Memorial Prize for Outstanding Junior Faculty, and the Stanton Prize from the Society for Philosophy and Psychology for outstanding contributions to interdisciplinary research. She was recently voted one of Popular Science Magazine’s “Brilliant 10” Young Minds.



Paul Bloom
Professor, Psychology
Yale University

Joshua Knobe
Assistant Professor, Philosophy
Yale University

Kristina Olson
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Yale University

Karen Wynn
Professor, Psychology and Cognitive Science
Yale University

The Origins of Justice: A Comparative/Developmental Approach
The proposed project explores an age-old question: where does virtue come from? Do the virtuous acquire their exemplary traits through experience and shaping, trained to act honorably through lots of feedback and experience? Or can virtue arise in the absence of experience, emerging without the need for cultural shaping? The answers to these age-old questions have important implications, both for thinkers interested in understanding of the nature of virtue, but also for those interested in promoting virtue within a society. This proposal will examine these broad questions by exploring the developmental and evolutionary origins of virtue. The project will first explore whether the seeds of virtue are in place early in human development, before cultural training and teaching have had a chance to do much shaping. Studying children’s virtues in this way can allow investigators to determine whether children really need certain kinds of experiences to develop virtuous behaviors or whether such behaviors will be in place in the absence of experience. In addition, the proposed studies investigate whether virtues can exist in the absence of human-specific experiences by exploring whether one non-human primate— the brown capuchin (Cebus apella)— shares human-like virtues. In doing so, the project hopes to empirically elucidate classic debates in philosophy and literature regarding which (if any) experiences are necessary and sufficient for the emergence of different kinds of virtues. To narrow the scope of this project, however, the proposed studies focus on one virtue in particular, one whose origins have been the focus of much controversy in moral philosophy and political theory: the virtue of justice. Although some work has begun to address the origins of justice in children and primates, many of these studies have been isolated from each other and from mainstream philosophical theory. The proposed studies examine the origins of justice through a more unified scientific approach. By investigating specific justice-related principles across comparative-developmental populations using the same methods, this project is empirically poised to resolve which human-specific experiences are necessary and sufficient for the development of different philosophically-relevant justice principles.

By studying children’s understanding of justice at different ages, we can determine whether certain experiences are needed for the development of just behaviors. By studying monkeys, we hope to determine whether justice can exist in the absence of human‐specific experiences. Taken together, our studies aim to empirically elucidate classic debates in philosophy regarding which experiences are necessary for the emergence of justice. In the current award period, we have begun examining children and capuchins’ intuitions about distributive justice. Our pilot data so far indicates that both populations appear to take into account whether distributions across themselves and others are fair. However, our preliminary results also suggest that there may be some important limitations on the development of distributive justice principles— our results to date indicate that children and monkeys act less virtuously when they are in an anonymous situation. Although still preliminary, our pilot results suggest that at least some adult‐like justice norms may take experience to fully develop across human development and evolution.

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