Developmental / Cultural / Experimental Psychologist

Research Interests

Central Research Interests

My central research interests are in understanding the evolution of culture, specifically, what features of human cognition have undergirded the cumulative process of cultural knowledge gain. I study rituals, as rituals appear pan-cultural, and are highly amenable to experimental manipulation. Moreover, they appear throughout the historical record, early in human development, and serve as a unique and malleable model of larger cultural processes. I contend that rituals have done an underappreciated amount of heavy-lifting throughout human history, and I hope to bring a quantitative and developmental perspective to the topic to complement the existing - and often qualitative - literature. I ask, then: In what ways have rituals influenced humans and human culture, and in what ways have humans used ritual to influence culture?

Ritualized Action and Its Historic Role in Human Culture

I initially studied how adults’ perception of objects was influenced by ritualized action under various circumstances (K & N, 2015; 2016), and I later attempted to replicate this effect behaviorally (in press), and among children in two diverse cultures (under review; pre-print). This work impressed upon me the utility of an expanded definition of ritualized action, which incorporated causal opacity and goal demotion as central features. Respectively, these concepts relate to how an observer understands and weights the potential causal mechanisms of an action, and, how able an observer is to accurately infer the state-of-mind and intentions of someone performing actions. These concepts, I have come to appreciate, have wide-ranging implications for other topics of enquiry associated with action, gesture, perception, and development. I have collaborated with Associate Professor Mark Nielsen in applying these concepts to the study of overimitation in children (N, K, & E, 2015; N, T, & K, in press; W, K, & N, 2016), and am beginning to explore how these features influence memory and social learning strategies (pre-print). Causal opacity and goal demotion serve as a solid foundation upon which I intend to continue further exploration. My experience in behavioral, developmental and cross-cultural research allows me to test theoretical positions in ecologically-valid contexts.

I am presently investigating how these features of action influence the maintenance of complex behavioral technologies in socially- and evolutionarily-relevant contexts. I am collaborating with developmental and cognitive psychologist Dr. Eva Reindl on how such actions preserve cooking technology, and how social learning and co-operation influence this dynamic. We hope to observe that ritualized actions do indeed facilitate better memory for complex sequences (above and beyond sequences without ritualization), and are interested in exploring how this is impacted by dyadic interactions. I anticipate pursuing research questions on this topic into the future, specifically as they relate to how the location/position - and not just the proportional frequency - of such actions influence memory and transmission. I also wish to further explore the phenomenon of overimitation in children as a culturally and biologically adaptive strategy that is neither simply social in nature, nor exclusively a product of ‘causal confusion’.

I am also collaborating with cognitive anthropologist Dr. Christopher Kavanagh (Oxford/University of Tokyo) and Assyriologist Dr. M. Willis Munroe (University of British Columbia), to survey the early written record in order to examine whether this hypothesis is apparent in the historical record. Specifically, we intend to examine the congruence between ancient Assyrian and Chinese texts - on medicine and witchcraft - and 19th century equivalents, to determine whether the structure and form of rituals corresponds across time and space. We intend to make this database open access, and will encourage others to use, and build, this corpus.

Finally, in collaboration with Dr. Yo Nakawake (Oxford/University of Kyushu) we will build a computer simulation of ritual/cultural transmission. The hope is that this tool might serve future research efforts. This programme of research directly addresses my interest in cultural evolution in two ways: first, it will allow me to better understand the theoretical role ritual may have played in maintaining complex technology, as well as one potential mechanism of action, and second, I can examine whether or not this hypothesis is borne out in the historical record.

Cultural Rituals as Evidence for Truth and Value

In collaboration with several colleagues, I have collected longitudinal data on children - over the course of a year - examining how cultural rituals influence how children represent the reality-status of various figures. Cultural rituals include practices associated with Christmas and Easter, but also include the following of scripts associated with the Tooth Fairy, and adherence to other normative/ritualistic social conventions associated with veridical figures. This research involved asking children the extent to which they believed in various figures, including: Santa, the Easter Bunny, and also a variety of other figures, such as unicorns, dragons, dinosaurs, aliens, and Princess Elsa. This data has revealed some theoretically consistent and interesting insights, and we are currently undertaking a pre-registered replication attempt of some of the core findings.

In the future, I intend to execute a cross-cultural replication of this work, in which I (and my colleagues) follow children in three cultures (UK, Japan, and the US) over the course of a year. Here, we will vary the specifics of the figures in theoretically-consistent, but culturally-diverse, ways. In so doing, we hope to determine whether or not the hypothesis that cultural rituals serve as a proxy for evidential value (for children) has merit. Naturally, this work could be extended in multiple ways. In particular, I would like to ask whether participation in cultural rituals changes values, and not simply beliefs. While there is a vast body of evidence showing that we learn from others, and that practicing virtuous behaviors (like charity) can increase the same future behavior, is there something special about the practice of ritualistic behaviors associated with virtues that can uniquely predict future behavior. Such questions would be fruitfully discussed in the context of children (and the acquiring of novel values) as well as adults (in the maintenance of important, but infrequent, kinds of action).

Relatedly, I have collected experimental data in which we inculcated children to believe they were being watched by a behaviorally-concerned supernatural agent (this was one of three conditions), and tested the children with an overimitation paradigm. We hope to determine whether or not supernatural oversight is analogous to actual oversight, or not. We also extended the overimitation paradigm by conducting two trials, separated by a period of 30 minutes. In so doing, we will be able to determine the degree to which children are able to remember sequences of actions over time, as well as the relative contribution social, and supernatural oversight has on this capacity. A natural extension of this work is to reverse the sequence of causality, such that participation in the ritualistic features of the overimitation task can inculcate belief (rather than simply being a required consequence of the belief). We hope to have this research under review by the beginning of 2019.

‘Ritual Modes’

My present appointment under Prof. Harvey Whitehouse involves examining ritual and cultural processes at an immense scale. I, and my colleague Dr. Chris Kavanagh, are tasked with examining how participation in different ‘modes’ of ritual influences individuals at a cognitive, interpersonal, and inter-group level. In so doing, we are creating a vast dataset of responses across a diversity of cultures. This involves collecting contemporary data, as well as surveying the anthropological record. For instance, we have examined, longitudinally, the influence of the 2017 US Presidential Inauguration on Americans’ perceptions of identity and group commitment (K, K, B, N, & W, under review), the influence of a recent heresy trial on individual and group identity among Indonesian Muslims, and the longitudinal identity-consequences on UK citizens after the Brexit vote.

We are also in the process of cross-culturally establishing whether a) rituals have a reliable morphological structure, and b) have the same reliable cognitive consequences. With regard to point a, we have already examined over 650 rituals from 80 communities. With regard to point b, we have thus far examined US and Japanese communities in depth, and are in the immediate process of preparing for data collection in at least five other nations. This work fits into my larger research interests as it speaks to how human cognition can reliably produce and/or respond to ritualistic and cultural  features, in a way that is predictable and potentially adaptive for humans.

Finally, we are in the early stages of building a database of virtual reality stimuli (as collected from real-world ritual events) to which we may later expose participants. In so doing, we can collect high-fidelity data on experiences that are otherwise impossible to generate in the lab, or subject participants to in the real world. This project is organic, and we are open to expanding the scope and range of collaborators in building this unprecedented tool.