Demystifying Human Behavior: Role of Primates in Understanding Mental Health

In Brief

Adolescents are often characterized by significant mood swings. While this behavior is a normal part of development, overly aggressive behaviors, extreme anxiety, and depression may be linked to mental health issues that require intervention. Although we may never fully understand why people act the way they do, research on primates in captivity can help us better characterize, and hopefully create better treatments for those exhibiting psychopathic tendencies.

Scientists often choose to study nonhuman animals due to their anatomical and physiological similarities with humans. With an animal model, researchers are able to translate results to the human model. When it comes to chimpanzees, their similarities to humans make them good candidates for understanding mental health. The differences between chimps and humans are also noteworthy. 

According to researcher Dr. Robert Latzman, an associate professor in psychology and neuroscience at Georgia State University, while chimpanzees “share a lot of complex developmental processes” with humans, chimps are also raised without socio-cultural influences as we are. As a result, observing and learning from chimpanzees in captivity can be simpler than working with human subjects. Socio-cultural factors influence the human personality and can undermine scientists’ efforts to isolate the neurobiological factors that affect personality traits and the mental illnesses associated with these traits.

Demystifying Human Behavior: Role of Primates in Understanding Mental Health

Removing the social and cultural barriers from a human model theoretically simplifies the study of traits and processes associated with mental illness in primates. But how can scientists actually measure psychopathic tendencies or accurately investigate mental health in chimpanzees? Since these animals cannot communicate verbally like humans, Dr. Latzman and his team use caregiver-report of triarchic model dimensions to conceptualize traits associated with psychopathy.

The triarchic model focuses on the traits that make up psychopathy. It is based on three components: disinhibition, meanness, and boldness. Disinhibition refers to an inability to manage impulsive tendencies. Meanness refers to a lack of empathy towards others, and boldness refers to a need for social dominance and low threat sensitivity. The triarchic model can be applied by observing and noting the behaviors of chimpanzees living in captivity. Characterizing behavior based on this model is not entirely “black and white.” Each of the three aspects in this model is assigned a value, allowing psychopathy to be measured on a continuum.

To clarify, Dr. Latzman uses height as a metaphor. You’d never ask if someone has height; instead, you’d ask how tall someone is. Thus, the question is not whether subjects exhibit the traits presented by the model, but rather to what extent they manifest these qualities. 

Due to the comprehensive nature of the triarchic model, this research not only develops a deeper understanding of psychopathy, but also human mental illness as a whole. Through studying chimpanzees based on the triarchic model, scientists have been able to discover more about the similarities in psychopathic tendencies between humans and chimps. 

As Dr. Latzman discusses, a big part of why he does the work he does is because he wants to understand “the way people suffer from behavioral problems and anxiety and depression.” He believes that if we can use these animal models to understand human behavior, practitioners can hopefully intervene and help those who need it.

Content Experts

Dr. Robert Latzman graduated with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Iowa and a B.S in Human Development with honors from Cornell University. He works at Georgia State University as an associate professor in psychology and neuroscience. Additionally, he directs the Individual Differences and Developmental Psychology Lab where he studies the neurobehavioral mechanisms that influence psychopathic tendencies. He has always been interested in the development of behavioral problems in kids and aims to address this challenge through his research with primates.

Works Cited

  1. Latzman, Robert D., et al. “Triarchic Psychopathy Dimensions in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): Investigating Associations with Genetic Variation in the Vasopressin Receptor 1A Gene.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 11, no. 407, 2017, pp. 1-10.
  2. Young, Emma. “Researchers are studying psychopathic chimps to better understand the human variety.” The British Psychological Society, 9 Aug. 2017,
  3. Dodgson, Lindsay. “Chimpanzees display psychopathic behaviour in its purest form — and it’s helping us to better understand mental illness.” Business Insider, 23 Aug. 2017,
  4. Lilienfeld, Scott O., et al. “A preliminary investigation of the construct of psychopathic personality (psychopathy) in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).” Journal of comparative psychology, vol. 113, no. 4, 1999, pp. 365
  5. “Understanding the Origin of Psychopathic Tendencies Through Chimpanzees.” Association for Psychological Science, 20 Mar. 2015,

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This article was written by Roshini Balan. Roshini and the cSw student editing team would like to thank Scott Sleek for serving as a mentor on this story. Sleek is a Director of News and Information at the Association for Psychological Science.

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