March 12, 2012
A broader understanding of the neural basis of social behavior in primates requires the use of species-specific stimuli that elicit spontaneous, but reproducible and tractable behaviors. In this context of natural behaviors, individual variation can further inform about the factors that influence social interactions. To approximate natural social interactions similar to those documented by field studies, we used unedited video footage to induce in viewer monkeys spontaneous facial expressions and looking patterns in the laboratory setting. Three adult male monkeys (Macaca mulatta), previously behaviorally and genetically (5-HTTLPR) characterized, were monitored while they watched 10 s video segments depicting unfamiliar monkeys (movie monkeys) displaying affiliative, neutral, and aggressive behaviors. The gaze and head orientation of the movie monkeys alternated between "averted" and "directed" at the viewer. The viewers were not reinforced for watching the movies, thus their looking patterns indicated their interest and social engagement with the stimuli. The behavior of the movie monkey accounted for differences in the looking patterns and facial expressions displayed by the viewers. We also found multiple significant differences in the behavior of the viewers that correlated with their interest in these stimuli. These socially relevant dynamic stimuli elicited spontaneous social behaviors, such as eye-contact induced reciprocation of facial expression, gaze aversion, and gaze following, that were previously not observed in response to static images. This approach opens a unique opportunity to understanding the mechanisms that trigger spontaneous social behaviors in humans and nonhuman primates.