Research Interests

This is an in-progress summary of some of the things I work on, with some representative publications listed below each section.

1. Human Nature, Cognitive Architecture, and Mental Culture

Which models best characterize the workings of the human mind?  How does mental “culture” work in tandem with inferential systems and emotions? Even though many hail the nature/nurture or biology/culture dichotomy to be a false one, few offer satisfying, precise ways out of the problem. My research into cognitive architecture focuses on humor, morality, and religious thought navigates the messy relationship between untutored, but revisable, reasoning and inferential systems and how these inform, moderate, and often contradict our reflective thought. Together, this work seeks to further synthesize the insights of evolutionary psychology, cognitive anthropology, behavioral ecology, and cultural evolution.

Purzycki, B. G., and Willard, A. K. (forthcoming). MCI Theory: A Critical Discussion [Target Article with Commentaries]. Religion, Brain and Behavior, X(X): XXX-XXX.

Purzycki, B. G. (2011a). Humor as Violation and Deprecation:  A Cognitive Anthropological Account. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11(1-2):  217-230.

Purzycki, B. G. (2010a). Cognitive Architecture, Humor and Counterintuitiveness:  Retention and Recall of MCIs. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10(1-2):  189-204.

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2. Gods’ Minds

In the cognitive science of religion, the view that how we make sense of gods’ minds is made possible by our mentalizing abilities is virtually axiomatic. However, cross-culturally, while people largely assume that gods know more than other people, people also claim that gods have a remarkably narrow set of concerns (and these are not always obviously “moral” concerns like the Abrahamic god).  Part of my research seeks to account for the cross-cultural variation in what gods’ know and care about. Do the mental models of gods’ concerns tell us something about the local function of gods? Do gods’ concerns point to fitness-relevant features of our social and natural environments? What kind of mind does it take to reason about gods’ knowledge and concerns? How do we think about the breadth of gods’ knowledge? Are our explicit beliefs indicative of our our minds actually work? How do representational models of gods’ concerns evolve? Why do we care so much about what gods care about?

Purzycki, B. G. (2015). Inside the Mind of God. Aeon Magazine.

Purzycki, B. G. (2013a). The Minds of Gods:  A Comparative Study of Supernatural Agency. Cognition, 129(1): 163-179.

Purzycki, B. G., Finkel, D. N., Shaver, J., Wales, N., Cohen, A. B., and Sosis, R.  (2012). What Does God Know? Supernatural Agents’ Access to Socially Strategic and Nonstrategic InformationCognitive Science, 36(5): 846-869.

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3. Evolutionary Ecology of Ritual and Belief

Why do religious rituals vary across traditions? Do rituals merely vary according to cultural history or are the timing, costs, and spatial distribution of rituals predictable outcomes of rituals’ local functions? If ritual functions in some way to bond other people together, ritual should flexibly shift to overcome challenges to those bonds.  However, beliefs and motivations should propel people act in adaptive ways and should therefore vary accordingly. This work might be best thought of as the cognitive part of human behavior ecology.

Purzycki, B. G. (2013b). Toward a Cognitive Ecology of Religious Concepts:  An Example from the Tyva Republic.

Purzycki, B. G., and Arakchaa, T. (2013). Ritual Behavior and Trust in the Tyva Republic. Current Anthropology, 54(3): 381-388.

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4. Evolution and Cognition of Religion and Morality

If religion contributes to sociality, how far can it take this sociality? To many, it seems quite obvious that religion contributes to harm and conflict. To others, it’s just as obvious that religion makes people “nicer”. Does this “niceness” only extend to religious ingroups? Is it an adaptive or maladaptive trait? What keeps religion around in contemporary societies? What kind of world is required for religion to dissolve?

Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., Willard, A. K., Norenzayan, A., and Henrich, J. (2016). Cross-cultural dataset for the Evolution of Religion and Morality ProjectScientific Data, 3: 16099. doi: 10.1038/sdata.2016.99.

Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., Willard, A. K., Xygalatas, D., Norenzayan, A., and Henrich, J. (2016). Moralistic Gods, Supernatural Punishment and the Expansion of Human Sociality. Nature, 530(7590): 327-330. [Protocols and methods; R Scripts]

Purzycki, B. G., & Gibson, K. (2011). Religion and Violence: An Anthropological Study on Religious Belief and Violent Behavior. Skeptic, 16(2):  22-27.

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5. The Tyva Republic, and the Social and Ecological History of Inner Asian Religion

To address a lot of these questions, I’ve conducted fieldwork in the Tyva Republic (popularly known as “Tuva”; TOO-vuh), a fascinating little republic just north of western Mongolia. Tuvan religion is largely a mixture of Tibetan Buddhism, shamanism, and animism. Tuva is also home to the amazing art of “throat-singing”, where singers split the sound frequencies of their voice into multiple tones.  The cultural history and heritage of Tuva is a source of fascination to me, and I’ve written some ethnographic works that detail some of the cultural history of the Republic. I’m presently working on a few projects that examine the external influence that various traditions have had on Tuvan religion throughout history.  Among other ethnographic works about Tuva, I’m also working on a cross-cultural study examining similar convergent traditions from around the world.

Purzycki, B. G. (2011b). Tyvan Cher Eezi and the Socioecological Constraints of Supernatural Agents’ Minds. Religion, Brain and Behavior, 1(1): 31-45.

Purzycki, B. G. (2010b). Spirit Masters, Ritual Cairns, and the Adaptive Religious System in Tyva. Sibirica, 9(2): 21-47.

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6. Religion’s Secular Utility

 I try to test whether or not key components of religion can solve problems, particularly ones that affect survival and reproduction. Just as traditions might exacerbate challenges, components of religion might also be helpful in solving various issues inherent in cooperation and coordination, might prevent people from consuming the wrong things, they might alleviate problems associated with a deteriorating environment, and even help cope with overcoming addiction. If this is the case, can secular, applied research harness religion’s effects? Or is there something particular about religion that is inherently more effective? What are the implications such benefits have for secular institutions and individuals?

Purzycki, B. G., and Sosis, R. (2009). The Religious System as Adaptive:  Cognitive Flexibility, Public Displays, and Acceptance.  In Voland, Eckart & Schiefenhövel, Wulf (eds.). The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior. New York:  Springer-Verlag, pp. 243-256

Purzycki, B. G., Haque, O., and Sosis, R. (2014). Extending Evolutionary Accounts of Religion beyond the Mind: Religions as Adaptive Systems. In Watts, Fraser, and Turner, Léon (eds.). Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science:  Critical and Constructive Essays. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, pp. 74-91.

Shariff, A., Purzycki, B. G., and Sosis, R. (2014). Religions as Cultural Solutions to Social Living. In A.B. Cohen (ed.). Culture Reexamined:  Broadening Our Understanding of Social and Evolutionary Influences. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, pp. 217-238.

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7. Methods

In “A Study in Scarlet”, Sherlock Holmes said that “One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature”. This resonates with Eric Wolf’s sentiments in Europe and the People without History (1982) where he writes that “the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality” (3). He asks: “If there are connections everywhere, why do we persist in turning dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things?” (4).  While such holism is satisfying and overcomes problems of crude reductionism, it is often accompanied by weak methodology that leads to sweeping narratives that leave out precise accounts of how these “connected things” interact. I strive to embrace the elegance of holism without sacrificing the precision afforded by methodological reductionism by conducting research that examines the links between various analytical levels (e.g., cognitive architecture, mental culture, social psychology, society, ecology, and natural environment). Such an approach is inherently fun, non-disciplinary, and keeps me very busy.  I use ethnographic, psychological, behavioral economic, and cognitive anthropological methods together as much as possible.

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