March 16, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 12

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    American Psychological Association awards professor’s behavioral research

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Dario Maestripieri[dario maestripieri], who joined the Committee on Human Development this year as Assistant Professor, has received the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology, one of the nation’s top awards for young researchers in psychology.

    Maestripieri, a specialist on primate behavior, was honored by the association for his work in the area of Animal Learning and Behavior, Comparative Psychology.

    The American Psychological Association has invited Maestripieri to address its membership at the association’s annual meeting in August.

    Maestripieri has looked at similarities between nonhuman primate and human behavior. In particular, he recently has examined infant abuse among rhesus monkey mothers and their offspring.

    “We found that 5 to 10 percent of the infants are abused by their mothers, about the same as with humans,” he said. “We found that infant abuse runs in families and that the monkey mothers who were more likely to abuse their young were those more vulnerable to social stress.”

    Some researchers on human child abuse have suggested that parents are prompted to abuse their children because of a particular kind of crying the children do.

    To test this hypothesis with monkeys, Maestripieri and his collaborators studied abused and non-abused infants and found few or no differences in the acoustic characteristics of their cries.

    The findings suggest that abuse may be associated with the mothers’ inability to tolerate crying rather than a particular sound of crying from the babies.

    Currently, Maestripieri is researching mother gorillas to determine if they are able to teach their young. Three College research [maestripieri] by kay hinton/emory photographyassistants who work with Maestripieri have been studying female gorillas at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago by recording their interactions with their offspring.

    “Animal teaching has been a somewhat controversial issue, because some psychologists contend that in order for teaching to take place, individuals need to have a theory of the mind; that is, the parent has to know what the offspring knows or does not know, be able to notice when the offspring learns, and adjust teaching accordingly.

    “People have held that what may look like teaching among animals is actually hard-wired, genetically programmed behavior. When a mother cat shows her kitten how to kill a mouse, for instance, she is exhibiting a behavior that she is programmed to perform, without being aware of its consequences.

    “I think our research among gorillas may show that a form of elementary teaching takes place, although gorillas are unlikely to show the complex forms of teaching observed in humans,” he said.

    Maestripieri, a native of Italy, became interested in animal behavior as a child and specifically became interested in primates while in college, when he conducted a research experiment with them. “What I noticed was the great variation in their personalities, just like in humans,” he said.

    Maestripieri received a B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Rome in 1987 and a Ph.D. in psychobiology from the University of Rome in 1992.

    He became a research associate at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University, in 1992 and held that position until his appointment to the Committee on Human Development.