Could marmoset monkeys hold the key to successful conversations?

Could marmoset monkeys hold the key to successful conversations?

Scientists from Princeton University have been exploring the evolution of human conversation and have turned to the marmosets for inspiration.

It’s often thought that our conversation evolved from gestures, as evidenced in apes, but the Princeton scientists wanted to find whether there were alternative explanations.

An experiment was conducted, documented in Current Biology Journal this month, in which the scientists put marmosets in a room and screened them from each other by a curtain.

They listened as one marmoset apparently communicated with the other using calls. The team found that whichever combination of marmosets they used, a monkey would wait five to six seconds every time before responding to the other’s call.

Scientists also noticed the marmosets copied each other, for instance by speeding up or slowing down.

The experiment showed that marmosets act reciprocally and continuously co-ordinate their vocal output. They reasoned this could be to reduce stress levels, in the sense that if a person talks and another seems to listen then you feel better as a result. Or it could be that information is embedded in the calls, relating to gender, identity, social group and context.

Dr Ghazanfar said: “If you’re out of sight of your group members and want to establish contact with another, you only know if you’ve established that contact if their response is contingent on your own. And the other hypothesis is that these calls they exchange might have information content.”

He said our own turn-based conversation may have evolved in a similar way, but on a parallel branch of the evolutionary tree.

Lessons for professional communicators could be the physiological benefits of demonstrative listening, and the natural sociological benefits that perhaps result from co-operation in the workplace.

For more on face-to-face communication click here.

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