What I Research
Our world has changed a lot in the past 6000 years. People have transitioned from living mostly in semi-nomadic groups and foraging for food to living mostly in cities and relying upon agriculture (and recently, industrially produced agriculture) for food. We have gone from seeing perhaps hundreds of people in an entire lifetime to seeing hundreds in a single day. We have experienced agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions. Our impact has been strong enough to eliminate species and change the earth's climate.
Despite these and myriad other changes, many of the fundamental aspects of our world follow the old adage the more things change, the more they stay the same. We are still preyed upon by infectious, microscopic, effectively invisible organisms - like Ebola, Influenza, and Malaria - just as our human ancestors have been for hundreds of thousands of years. Despite plummeting birth rates in the Western world, we still dedicate an incredible amount of time, energy, and attention toward courting, dating, and mating – just as we have for hundreds of thousands of years. And we still have a strong moral conscience and a strong sense of moral condemnation, just as we have for hundreds of thousands of years.
My research is dedicated to understanding how these basic, enduring aspects of being human have shaped the way our minds work in the modern world. Much of this work focuses on three “M’s” – microbes, mating, and morality.
- Microbes: Pathogenic microorganisms pose challenges to all complex organisms, including humans. What strategies do we use to navigate these challenges, and how do these strategies affect our day-to-day lives? My research helps us better understand (1) how people respond to cues to pathogen – that is, the sights and smells that indicate that pathogens are likely to be present, and (2) how people who are especially avoidant of pathogens (think people who are easily disgusted by sights and smells, or “germ phobics”) differ from other people. This research can inform how we see and judge other people, how we decide which foods to eat versus reject, and how we stay healthy in the modern world.
- Mating: Our lives are not only about sex. But every person living today is the descendant of millions of animals who reproduced sexually, and whose offspring were smart, strong, and healthy enough to reproduce themselves. These millions of generations have shaped a sophisticated mating psychology that is laden with strong emotions and motivations. My research helps us better understand the consequences of this psychology. It helps us not only understand the types of things that we do to acquire mates, but also the types of things that we do to avoid individuals we do not want to mate with.
- Morality: Many of the disagreements that cause conflict in the modern world are moral in nature – they concern the types of behaviors that people feel others should do. Such disagreements are at the center of Western political debates and “culture wars” (think abortion, gay marriage, the distribution of pooled resources) and international conflicts (think Wahhabism versus secular progressivism). My research helps us better understand why people are so invested in moral sentiments, what types of emotions underlie moral judgments, and how we behave when we sense that a moral rule has been violated.
How I Conduct This Research
I use a variety of the research tools and techniques employed by social and personality psychologists. These include research instruments designed to assess individuals’ personality, their investment in avoiding pathogens, their sexual strategies, and their tendency to morally judge others’ behaviors. Such instruments usually ask respondents to answer questions about themselves on paper or on a computer. To make the most appropriate inferences, I use state-of-the-art statistical techniques to assess the reliability and validity of these instruments.
I also utilize careful experimental designs to investigate how people respond to changes in their surroundings. So, how do people respond when they detect that pathogens might be nearby, or how do they respond to a mating opportunity? I use a variety of stimuli to do this, including images, odors, and guided visualizations (i.e., written prompts).
Finally, I sometimes need to use methods not typically employed by personality and social psychologists to better understand the psychology of microbes, mating, and morality. Some of my research has therefore used genetic analyses, hormonal analyses, and learning (conditioning) paradigms.
Who Can Benefit From This Research
My research can help us better understand some of the following pressing issues:
- Our current food production and consumption habits are unhealthy and environmentally destructive, yet many food innovations (e.g., GMO foods or incorporating insects into Western cuisine) are unpalatable. Why are we disgusted by certain foods, and how can we transition from rejection to acceptance?
- Poor health caused by “lifestyle diseases” is a growing problem around the globe. How can we use leverage our “evolved” health psychology (e.g., that of pathogen avoidance) to improve health in the modern world?
- Many individuals are stigmatized because they are categorized as members of groups associated with disease. Examples include gay men and immigrants from some parts of the world. What are the effects of associating groups with disease, and how can we neutralize such effects?
- Sexual crimes and unwanted sexual advances plague individuals from societies around the world. How can we reduce these problems by better understanding our evolved psychology of sexual avoidance and threat reduction?
- “Culture war” issues divide people within and between societies. This impedes cooperation and can contribute to zero-sum rather than mutually beneficial interactions. How can we better understand the moral psychology underlying these issues, and how can we use this understanding to reduce conflict?