Research

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St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

 

I am director of the Mind in Context Lab at Victoria University of Wellington. My research interests largely focus on the aspects of culture that shape the decisions we make about how to treat each other. I look at how individuals perceive, navigate, and deploy facets of these social and ecological factors shaping their lives.

Knowing the mind of God

One very important aspect of how we decide how to behave around and toward each other is through the lens of religion. Beliefs that a powerful supernatural being can see us and intervene in our lives – especially when we are bad to each other – motivates us to be kind to others beyond our family in some cases, but also motivates us to abandon even our closest kin in other cases. My research looks to find out what aspects of belief might push our behaviours in particular directions. I further look at how some parts of our upbringing – such as whether we were raised in a religious household – impacts our behaviour as adults regardless of current belief or unbelief.

Understanding the world around us

Another line in my research looks at how religious beliefs act in the wider scope of how we see the world around us. When we perceive our physical safety to be relatively assured – as is often the case in large, secular societies with reliable, minimally corrupt governments and accessible social support programs – beliefs that form a particular way of thinking about God might have drastically different consequences for social decisions than in more impoverished, insecure places. These socio-ecological differences may motivate vastly different forms of beliefs that lead to distinct societal consequences.

Balancing cultures

A third facet of my research focuses on how individuals navigate the wider arrays of social expectations forming systems of social norms that shape different cultural frameworks. The three broad norm systems I focus on are kinship, religion, and economic markets. These norm systems inform different concepts of what is required to be a good person. A cultural framework based on kinship places a high value on blood ties, favouring interactions with known others that may not place equality as the ultimate good, but may instead promote varying degrees of favouritism based on one’s wider obligations to kith and kin. A framework based on religious belief – particularly beliefs about powerful gods as often occur in Abrahamic traditions – may have a peculiar ability to co-opt the logic of kinship to extend concern beyond the local group to anonymous others who display membership in this wider religious community. Norms supporting market-based transactions, on the other hand, require a degree of egalitarian treatment toward all potential transaction partners, regardless of kin ties or group membership. Individuals live within nested layers of these three norm systems to a greater or lesser extent across many different societies. My research looks at how reference to each of these norm systems might lead to drastically different social decisions.

 

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