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Research

Broadly, my research interest is in studying human behavior as a functionally adaptive system, that is, evolutionary psychology--the study of human behaviour and cognition from an evolutionary perspective. My research topics have been diverse, including leadership, attitudes, social norms, altruism, social policing, nonverbal behavior and animal behavior. I adopt an integrative approach, drawing on research and theory in evolutionary psychology, primatology, animal behavior, behavioral ecology, and social psychology.

I am particularly interested in within-group dynamics and interactions. My current research focuses on questions that relate to group functioning within the parameters of pressures for self-oriented behaviour. Whew! What does that mean? Most evolutionary psychologists assume that humans are evolved to be reproductively selfish--they argue that we act in ways that maximise our reproductive success ( genetically selfish). The only exception to this is if we can maximise our kin's reproductive success by being altruistic toward them (which can mean more of our kin-altruism genes getting into the next generation than if we just try to achieve that ourselves!).

However, some evolutionists think that we are also willing to be altruistic to others (non-kin) in our groups, within certain conditions. In the last decade, a substantial body of work has emerged from a number of disciplines (particularly psychology and economics, complemented by theory from biology and fieldwork from anthropology) that suggests that humans are fundamentally cooperative. That is, we are willing to be altruistic to people in our own groups, such as friendship circles or communities, even if we won't be compensated (think, volunteering for a psychology experiment).

So I am interested in looking at when we will be altruistic to non-kin, and why this happens. Being altruistic can take many forms, so this can take in many behaviours if the behaviours benefit the relevant group. Along these lines, I have done, and am doing, work looking at whether being watched is necessary for cooperation, whether we prefer to help family over friends, behaviourally or cognitively, and whether social norms are something to which we are evolved to respond.

Prior to beginning work as a lecturer, I worked as a post-doctoral researcher with Mark van Vugt, looking at leadership from an evolutionary social perspective. We were interested in looking at how leadership operates by using an evolutionary theoretical framework. Very little work has been done using such an approach. From an evolutionary perspective, leadership is a behaviour that is very likely to have been shaped by natural selection, given that such behaviour has implications for both individual and group fitness.

We conducted a number of studies, focussing on examining the potential role of a leader as a solution to coordination and cooperation problems. We addressed this question using zTree to create public goods games.

Before that, I have worked with Marco Perugini and Mark Connor studying the relationship between implicit and explicit attitudes. Our focus was on whether implicit and explicit attitudes can both successfully predict actual behaviours, what kinds of behaviours, and how implicit and explicit attitudes affect behaviour in relation to each other (e.g. do they interact as predictors or not?). As part of this project, we worked with implicit measures such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and the Extrinsic Affective Simon Task (EAST).

My PhD, working with David Sloan Wilson, centred on examining whether humans might have cognitive biases that facilitate our functioning in a social environment that is replete with normative requirements. Social norms are central to human social functioning and a comprehension of social norms is vital for social success, which can translate into biological success (i.e. increased fitness). I have examined cognitive recall biases, emotional responses to norm violations and reciprocity and punishment behaviours in humans. In addition, social norms seem to have a group selection dimension. Historically, this topic was rejected by evolutionary biologists, but much recent work, both theoretical and empirical, suggests it’s a viable process. I have developed an agent-based computer model to examine whether altruism could evolve.

I have also conducted research in nonverbal behaviour (looking at postural congruence) and spent time in Africa (in The Gambia) studying the behaviour of feral Gallus gallus.

Interested in working with me? For undergrad dissertations, contact me, as I have many ideas related to the above topics that could be easily tested. For postgraduate research, I am particularly keen to work with individuals who have an interest in similar areas to me, as that will play best to my strengths (and thus to yours). Feel free to get in touch--I am happy to talk informally about possibilities by email, phone or in person (to do so, see my contact page).