Join Us!

Interested in joining the Culture, Cognition and Coevolution Lab?

Volunteering for a research lab is a rewarding experience that can serve as preparation for graduate school or other related endeavors. See below for a list of research projects that can use your help. Interested research assistents should email Mona Xue (culture.cognition.evo.lab@gmail.com) with a brief statement about the project they are interested in.

Anansi Story Annotating Project (Manvir Singh and TC Zeng)

Anansi seeks to create a database consisting of more than 1,600 legends, folktales, and myths from around the world. You will be coding them, meaning that you will be reading the stories and answering questionnaires that include questions both about each story as a whole and individual characters.

Reviewing Human Universals (Damián Blasi)

There is a set of presumed behavioral, cognitive, technological, and cultural regularities across human populations that have been labelled "human universals". They are a true mixed bag, including for instance the preponderance of right-handedness, the presence of pronouns, crying, cooking, marriage, spears, and sexual jealousy. However, the evidence that supports -or doesn't- these claims is scarce and mostly based on a handful of populations. Our group is trying to produce a large scale-reassessment of these claims, and an important first step in that direction involves an initial literature review. You'll be responsible for collecting published evidence against or in favor of ~350 human universals covering many distinct fields relevant to the study of humans, from linguistics and anthropology to emotion research and comparative psychology.

Systematic review of linguistic fairness in medicine and public health (Damián Blasi and Joseph Dexter)

Text-based methods and metrics are central to many areas of life, from marketing and social media curation to medical diagnosis. A common feature of language-based assessments across domains is the central position of English - with few exceptions, methods tend to be developed with English-language corpora in mind and then adapted hastily (if at all) to other languages and cultural contexts. For clinical and public health applications, such linguistic unfairness can have serious adverse consequences for health equity and can complicate studies of the influence of culture on psychological wellbeing, but the scope of the problem remains poorly defined. As an RA you will work with us to conduct a systematic review of language-based assessments in medicine, giving particular attention to the prevalence for English-only methods and, for multilingual approaches, the quality of validation data available for the other languages include. This work will culminate in the joint preparation of a short review article, which we will aim to submit to a medical journal in early 2022.

Quantifying perceptions of genre (Joseph Dexter)

Genre - whether a text is poetry or prose, or, more specifically, a novel, biography, or political speech - is a central organizing principle in the study of literature: presumably many of you have taken a course on, say, 19th century British novels or early modern drama. When given the frequencies of common words or various stylistic markers for a set of texts, computers do very well at identifying genre. Accuracies in excess of 95% are not unusual, and this strong performance underlies a lot of interesting research in the digital humanities and computational social sciences. Yet little is known about human performance on the same task (especially for cross-cultural samples). Taking inspiration from a recent study of music in which participants successfully identified the social function of unfamiliar songs just by listening to short clips (Mehr et al. 2018), we will investigate the perceptual basis for distinguishing literary genres. Study participants will read short passages of English literature with all formatting cues removed and answer questions about the genre of each passage and the stylistic features that most informed their guesses. As an RA you will help with design of a pilot experiment, refinement of the survey instrument following the pilot, and analysis of the final results.

Cross-cultural investigation of marital eligibility rules (Tommy Flint)

Many societies around the world feature rules and rituals that determine when adolescents or young adults are allowed to marry. For instance, among the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of southern Africa, a boy was traditionally required to hunt and kill a big game animal, and then submit himself to scarring of his upper back and shoulders, before he was considered eligible for marriage. For the Kogi horticulturalists of northern Colombia, girls were only allowed to marry after they had reached menarche and undergone a 7-day period of seclusion and fasting. And currently in the United States, young people must reach a specific chronological age before they can legally marry (varies by state, but typically 16, if they have parental approval).

Why are these types of rules so common, and what explains their cross-cultural diversity? In this project, we’ll explore the full extent of cross-cultural variation in marital eligibility rules and begin to test hypotheses that explain this variation. To accomplish this, you will read, summarize, and classify ethnographic texts on marital regulations, sourced from the anthropological database eHRAF. Then, we will combine your collected data with existing cross-cultural datasets to evaluate hypotheses regarding variation in these rules — for instance, do boys have more strict marital eligibility rules in societies where men contribute greatly to subsistence? Is the reverse true for girls and women? We would also have the opportunity to test any specific hypotheses that you develop through your reading, pending the availability of relevant data.

Your final product will constitute the first extensive cross-cultural review of marriage eligibility rules. By the end of the semester, we will have identified cross-cultural patterns in the diversity of such rules, and hopefully also produced some tentative explanations as to how this diversity may have emerged. This project will require close reading of ethnographic texts, and attention to detail in recording results.

Cultural Variation and Cultural Evolution of Perceptions of Political Leaders (Amar Sarkar)

Globally, there are approximately 100 countries in which citizens choose their leaders through democratic elections. Each year, many billions of dollars go into making candidates attractive to potential voters. However, who counts as a political leader, and how do individuals decide what is attractive or unattractive in a politician? This is a surprisingly understudied area, even though a successful candidate in one country may be a catastrophic failure in another for precisely the same behavior. These include dramatic differences in the salience of issue positions, psychological traits, and personal and family background. Here are just four examples using the cases of the United States and India: 1) In the United States, an abortion in a candidate's family can destroy a political career. In stark contrast, in India, abortion plays little or no role in the personal or public appraisal of a candidate. 2) American campaigns emphasize a candidate's family life, whereas Indian campaigns minimize a candidate's family life. 3) American campaigns do their utmost to make candidates appear "human" and approachable (i.e. "can I invite him/her to dinner?"). In contrast, Indian politicians are treated as godlike figures. 4) American politicians seek to minimize their dynastic connections, whereas family dynasties are viewed favorably in India. We have collected data from 500 participants to substantiate these and many other differences.

In the proposed project, we will examine these differences in detail. Depending on student interest, we can conduct psychological experiments to further elucidate cultural differences, apply "non-traditional" quantitative methods to extract information from sources such as media coverage of politicians, or develop theories to provide historical insights into this area. In all cases, we will draw on the expertise of the Henrich lab, which is ideally situated to provide a theoretical, cultural evolutionary background for how these various differences (and similarities!) might have emerged. Research in this area has important implications for campaign strategy and the understanding of cultural variation in the perceptions of leaders.