News and events Tilburg University

50 years of psychology: life lessons for primates by Frans de Waal

Published: 03rd October 2021 Last updated: 04th October 2021

Psychology in Tilburg exists 50 years. To celebrate, we invited the world-famous primatologist and psychology professor Frans de Waal to give a lecture in a sold-out music stage 013. With numerous examples of recognizable expressions, behavior and emotions in chimpanzees and bonobos, he made the more than 600 attendees laugh and he moved us. And above all, he showed: we are all primates. Perhaps the greatest challenge for psychologists is studying one's own species objectively.

“How do we become smart enough to know how we know?” New TSB dean Antoinette de Bont started the evening with this thoughtful thinker. She briefly discussed the history of psychology in Tilburg. How hard labor in the textile industry and the automation of the loom led to economic psychology. How we arrived at epistemology via childhood psychology and function theory. And from clinical psychology and health psychology to: how can we know? And… are we smart enough to know? Questions to which there is no direct answer. For which you have to let go of assumptions, let your imagination speak and think outside your own box. This is where Frans de Waal comes in handy.

Frans de Waal slide puppetshow 013

Thousand hours

That's how long it takes to study an animal before you can set up an experiment. It is impressive to think how many hours Frans de Waal has now spent between the chimpanzees and bonobos. To show us that theories like 'anthropomorphism is wrong', 'animals can't look back or forward in time' or 'animals don't know complex emotions' can all be disproved. Even the number of facial muscles and subtle facial expressions are exactly the same in chimpanzees as in humans.

Sour face

Joy, sadness, altruism, cunning, fear, feelings of injustice and sense of humor. We saw it all pass by on the now familiar faces of our fellow primates. Even disgust is no stranger to our relatives. This emotion that has long been thought to be exclusively reserved for humans has been shown to be present in monkeys, but also in many other animal species. The same goes for offering comfort in case of fear or sadness, as can be seen in the well-known and moving moment of ‘mama’s last hug’. A beautiful farewell to alpha female Mama who was a true inspiration for Frans de Waal's latest book 'Mama's last embrace. About emotions in animals and what they tell us about ourselves'.


So we are all primates. Is there nothing that distinguishes us from our second cousins? What makes us humans unique is the way we use language and the fact that we can live together in huge groups. As De Waal puts it: “A room like this filled with chimpanzees or bonobos would have turned into a huge fight or an orgy very quickly.” Still, the challenge remains to understand our own species as psychologists. On to the next 50 years of psychology in Tilburg!

Frans de Waal - Zaal 013