Dr Clare Cunningham

Head of Division

School School of Social and Health Sciences

Department Division of Psychology

Contact info

+44 (0)1382 30 8584


I’m currently Head of the Psychology Division and a member of the Evolutionary and Biological Approaches to Behaviour Research Group.

I have over 10 years’ experience as a lecturer and researcher within Universities in the UK, completing my Ph.D. in comparative psychology at Stirling University before going on to teach at the University of Liverpool. I joined Abertay is 2007 and currently teach modules in biological psychology, evolutionary psychology and biological influences on behaviour in humans and non-humans.

My research focuses on evolutionary and comparative psychology, particularly the role of individual differences (life-history variables and experiences) in understanding of the physical and social world by human and non-human animals, mechanisms used in humans and non-humans in social bonding, understanding how evolutionary changes in neuro-anatomy underpin species differences in physical and social cognition and the influence of biological mechanisms on social behaviour and cognition in humans and non-humans. I currently hold a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust to investigate how experiences and life-history variables influence understanding of the physical world in non-human primates (gibbons).

Other projects include:

Social bonding strategies in humans: Investigating the potential fitness benefits associated with social partnerships and belonging to particular social groups. Current research, conducted with faculty and student collaborators, looks at how life history variables such as gender, family size and education level influence social bonding strategies in humans and how specific activities (such as cooperation or synchrony) affect feelings of emotional closeness, and how bonds between peers or between human and non-human animals can moderate health and wellbeing.

Social cognition in domestic dogs: I have published research with student collaborators that demonstrated an effect of familiarity on dogs’ ability to follow human-given social cues. I am also interested in how genes associated with prosocial behaviours may influence bond
formation between dog and human that could have significant implications for dogs selected as service animals.

Social Brain Hypothesis and social complexity: Using comparative approaches to explain how evolutionary trends in brain development and cognitive processing impact behaviour in the physical and social domain.

I currently supervise post-graduate students (Ph.D. and MbR) and undergraduate final year dissertations of students working on projects aligned to these research areas.

During my time as Head of Division, I have become involved in promoting gender equality in academic institutions and Chair the School of Social and Health Sciences Athena Swan Self Assessment Team (SAT) and sit on the University SAT. I am also a Lead Voice for Gender Equality at Abertay.

I have previously been Editor of the Journal of Animal Behaviour and Treasurer for the Primate Society of Great Britain. 

I hold a PhD in Comparative Psychology from the University of Stirling, and undergraduate degrees in Zoology, and Animal Behaviour and Welfare.

PS0801A Biological Psychology

PS1030A Advanced Biological Psychology: Human Evolutionary Psychology 

PS1040A Work-based Review

PS1112A Core Biological Psychology


 My research focuses on the evolutionary progression of cognitive abilities and how experience affects cognitive development in humans and non-humans and particularly how social as well as technical intelligence contribute to brain evolution. I am interested in cognitive demands of social interaction, particularly mental complexities involved in social exchange in a biological market, mechanisms that facilitate cooperation such as trade and religious beliefs and influences on mate choice decisions beyond physical attractiveness (creativity and artistic expression). A common theme that unites all areas is the trade-offs that occur as species try to maximise their fitness across evolutionary time and individual lifespan.

I have close links with the Scottish Primate Research Group (http://psy.st-andrews.ac.uk/research/sprg/) and the Primate Society of Great Britain (http://www.psgb.org/) that help foster research collaborations across institutions.

D’Agostino, J.M. & Cunningham, C.L. (2015). Preliminary investigation of flexibility in learning color-reward associations in gibbons (Hylobatidae). American Journal of Primatology,77(8), 854-868.

Cunningham, C.L., Anderson, J.R. & Mootnick, A.R. (2015). Evolution of technical intelligence: perspectives from the Hylobatidae. In C. Barelli, H. Hirai & U. Reichard (eds). Developments in Primatology: Evolution of Gibbon and Siamang. Springer (Pending).

Cunningham, C.L. & Ramos, M.F. (2013). Effect or training and familiarity on responsiveness to human cues in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition. 17(3), 805-814.

Mootnick, A.R., Cunningham C.L. & Baker, E. (2012). Phylogenetic Separation in Limb Use in Captive Gibbons (Hylobatidae): A Comparison across the Primate Order. American Journal of Primatology, 74(11), 1035-1043.

Cunningham, C.L., Anderson, J.R. & Mootnick, A.R. (2011). A sex difference in effect of relevant object-mediated problem-solving in gibbons (Hylobatidae). Animal Cognition, 14(4), 599-605.

Cunningham, C.L. & Mootnick, A.R. (2009). Gibbons – Quick guide. Current Biology, 19(14), R543-R544.

Cunningham C.L., Anderson J.R. and Mootnick A.R. (2006). Object manipulation to obtain a food reward in hoolock gibbons (Bunopithecus hoolock). Animal Behaviour 71, 621-629.

Cunningham C.L. and Anderson J.R. (2005). Solutions to a trap-table task: do gibbons use simple associative rules for success. Proceedings of the BIAZA 7th Annual Symposium on Zoo Research.

Cunningham, C.L., & Anderson, J.R. (2004). Tool manipulation to gain a reward in gibbons: Insight, learning and understanding. Folia Primatologica, 75(1), 252-252.

Book reviews

Cunningham, C.L. (2013). Tool Use in Animals: Cognition and Ecology. Eds: Sanz, C.M, Call, J. & Boesch, C. Cambridge University Press 2013. ISBN: 978-1-107-01119-9. Animal Behaviour.

Cunningham, C.L. (2009). The Question of Animal Culture. Eds. Laland, K. & Galef, B.G. Animal Behaviour, 78(3), 773-774.

More Information


Carniegie Small Grant (£2200)

Association for Animal Behaviour (£1200) - two small research grants

Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (£2000) - Undergraduate Summer Vacation Scholarship


Editor for the journal Animal Behaviour: Jan 2009  - Jan 2011

    Treasurer (Elected Officer and Trustee) for the Primate Society of Great Britain: 2011 - 2014


• January 2012: Café Science Dundee - ‘Being social, being sneaky and being human’. Public lecture where I discussed deceptive behaviour in primates.

• April 2010:  Primate Society of Great Britain Spring Conference. Scientific meeting held at the University of Abertay with invited speakers from the fields of primate cognition, conservation and welfare.

• December 2012: Christmas lectures UAD – ‘Hot or Not? The Science of Attraction’. Public lecture series hosted by Abertay that I organised and contributed a talk on animal attraction. Covered by the BBC Press.

• November 2011: Monkey Mayhem. Interactive presentations given as Camperdown Wildlife Park Dundee as part of their science program and aimed at educating zoo visitors about primate behaviour. Covered by local media (Dundee Courier and Radio Tayside).

• December 2010, 2009: Dundee Science Festival. Interactive presentations given in two consecutive years on facial attraction (2010) and laterality (2009).

• December 2009:   Christmas lectures UAD – ‘The Big Lie’. Public lecture series hosted by Abertay that I organised and contributed a talk on deception in primates. Covered by the BBC Press.

Selected presentations

E. Tilley, C.L. Cunningham & C.D. Watkins. (2014). Do romantic partners impose greater financial costs than other social partners? PTNCE 2014 – 1st Conference of the Polish Society for Human and Evolution Studies

A. Weiss, M. C. Gartner, F. B. Morton, C. Cunningham & M. Inoue-Murayama. (2014). The personality, subjective well-being, and health of captive gibbons (Family Hylobatidae). American Primatological Society Annual Meeting, Decatur, GA.

G. Rodriguez & C.L. Cunningham. (2013). Individual differences in the use of religious ideaology, Department of Psychology Seminar Series, University of Abertay.

C.L. Cunningham, J.R. Anderson and A.R. Mootnick. (2010). The evolution of technical intelligence: perspectives from the Hylobatidae. 22nd Congress of the International Primatological Society, Kyoto, Japan – invited speaker.

C.L. Cunningham. (2008). Does experience make you smart? The effect of relevant object exposure on problem-solving skills in apes. Department of Psychology Research Seminars, University of Abertay.

C.L. Cunningham. (2007). A spanner in the works; the cognitive tool kit of the gibbon in comparative perspective. Behavioural Ecology Research Group Seminar Series, University of Stirling.

C.L. Cunningham, J.R.Anderson, A.R. Mootnick. (2005). Solutions to a trap-table task: Do gibbons (Hylobatidae) use simple associative rules for success? BIAZA 7th Annual Symposium on Zoo Research, Twycross Zoo.

C.L. Cunningham, J.R.Anderson, A.R. Mootnick. (2004).Tool manipulation to gain a reward in gibbons: insight, learning and understanding.20th Congress of the International Primatological Society, Torino.

Meet the rest of the team

Ms Noelle McAra

Ms Noelle McAra

Division of Psychology | Lecturer

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Dr Corinne Jola

Dr Corinne Jola

Division of Psychology | Lecturer

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