Laurie Santos

Cross-Species Cognitive Psychologist

LAURIE SANTOS, 42, is a professor of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory and Canine Cognition Center. Dr. Santos’s work focuses on the age-old question of what is unique about the human mind. She approaches this question by comparing the cognitive abilities of humans, monkeys, and dogs. A related inquiry into the origins of human irrationality led her to teach capuchin monkeys to use money (first surprise: the concept of money is not unique to humans). She found that, in monkey business, capuchins make the same poor economic choices that humans do, such as overbuying certain food items when their prices drop. Her research suggests that monkeys possess a theory of mind—the ability to think about what other monkeys think. At the Canine Cognition Center, Santos studies the canine mind: how dogs perceive the world, solve problems, and make decisions. Her work reveals that Fido is smarter than he appears.

Santos also studies the science of happiness. In January 2018, she started teaching a course at Yale called “Psychology and the Good Life,” which is breaking attendance records at the 316-year-old university. One-quarter of Yale's undergraduates—1,182 students—have enrolled in the hope of learning evidence-based strategies for reversing harmful ingrained behaviors and leading happier lives. For the final assessment, each student undertakes a “Hack Yo’Self Project,” a personal self-improvement plan. Yale, like other selective-admission universities, is facing a mental health crisis of perpetually stressed-out students: More than half of its undergraduates seek psychological care during their time there.