Major Funded Projects

The Database of Religious History


The Database of Religious History (DRH) aims to be the world's first comprehensive, online quantitative and qualitative encyclopedia of religious and social history. Open source, free and shaped in content and function by its users, it functions as a massive, standardized, searchable encyclopedia of the current best scholarly opinion on historical religious traditions and the historical record more generally, allowing users to instantly gain an overview of the state of scholarly opinion and access powerful, built-in analytic and data visualization tools.
For more information, visit the project webpage.


The Evolution of Religion and Morality

"The Evolution of Religion and Morality” is a grant awarded to a group of directors from UBC-SFU’s Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture (HECC), led by Edward Slingerland (PI) at UBC. It centers on a project of unprecedented scope and ambition aimed at exploring the cultural evolutionary roots of religion. This six-year project brings together the expertise of over fifty scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars from universities across North America, Europe and East Asia—along with postdocs and graduate students—into a research network that will be called the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC). Over this six-year project, CERC aims to answer the question of what religion is, how it is linked to morality, and why it plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence. The grant will also contribute to the establishment of a new, interdisciplinary Program for the Study of Religion at UBC. Project Findings.


The Evolution of Culture and Institutions: Evidence from the Kuba Kingdom

We use variation in historical state centralization to examine the impact of institutions on cultural norms. The Kuba Kingdom, established in Central Africa in the early 17th century by King Shyaam, had more developed state institutions than the other independent villages and chieftaincies in the region. It had an unwritten constitution, separation of political powers, a judicial system with courts and juries, a police force and military, taxation, and significant public goods provision. Comparing individuals from the Kuba Kingdom to those from just outside the Kingdom, we find that centralized formal institutions are associated with weaker norms of rule-following and a greater propensity to cheat for material gain. Project Findings.



Our objectives in this project are to: (a) investigate whether two distinct status-seeking social strategies— labeled Dominance and Prestige—are both effective avenues to successfully leading and influencing teams; (b) explore how Dominance and Prestige strategies are signaled and sustained through leaders’ verbal and nonverbal behaviors; and (c) examine the impact of Dominant vs. Prestigious leadership on group performance and on follower psychology, including well-being and satisfaction. Project Proposal.

Measuring Cultural Variation

Development of new tools for the measurement of culturally-shared mental phenomena (e.g., representations, scripts, prejudices); studying mechanisms by which these phenomena are transferred and adapted across individuals; and advancing research on the distribution and transmission of cultural phenomena within populations.

Understanding God's Mind

This study will focus on the relationship between how people from different religious traditions understand divine minds, and how this perception influences decisions to cooperate.cooperate. Existing psychological work, performed mostly in North America, suggests that people are capable of perceiving other minds (including divine minds) along a spectrum from more human-like, with personal goals and limited scope, to a hyper-agentic super-intelligence that sees all actions and thoughts. An independent line of work, also performed principally in North America, shows that people who believe in God cooperate more with anonymous others because they feel they are being divinely monitored. We aim to link these two lines of research by comparatively exploring how people from diverse religious traditions and cultures understand the minds of their deities, and how this may or may not impact cooperation with others who stand at different social distances from the actor. Project Proposal.

Virtues in Conflict

"Virtues in Conflict " explores how people from different cultures make tough choices between the better of two goods. Funded by Science of Virtues and University of Chicago.

In daily life, we often face tough choices between competing appeals to our goodwill – not just between being naughty or nice, but between multiple ways of doing good. In this study, a diverse team of scholars conducts a cross-cultural exploration of what these dilemmas are, how they are resolved in different cultural contexts and the cultural and ecological conditions influencing how people resolve them. The project brings together scholars in philosophy, anthropology, psychology and economics and involves fieldwork in 6 countries and 8 fieldsites around the world. Project Webpage.


"Choosing the Good"

"Choosing the Good" explores how people from different cultures make tough choices between the better of two goods.


Ritual, Community, & Conflict

Some of the greatest atrocities have been caused by groups defending or advancing their political aspirations and sacred values. In order to comprehend and address the wanton violence of war, terrorism and genocide, it is necessary to understand the forces that bind and drive human groups. This five-year programme of research investigates one of the most powerful mechanisms by which groups may be formed, inspired, and coordinated: ritual.



A cross-cultural and developmental investigation of how groups influence thinking about individuals. Funded by the Social Science Research Council.

Human social life is dominated by groups. Clans, clubs, castes and guilds, along with a constellation of other groups,shape all aspects of human life, from trade and cooperation to marriage and child-rearing. Casual observation suggests that not all kinds of groups are equally salient and durable. Some groups, ethnic and racial groups in particular, seem to stand out in their ability to variously motivate in-group trust and out-group oppression. Our project team aims to probe the psychological foundations of how people in very different societies think about ethnic and racial groups, whether such groups evoke different patterns of inferences vis-à-vis other social groups, and how these patterns develop in children. Project Proposal.

The Origins of Prosociality

Funded by the MacArthur Foundation. This projects involves a comparative study of prosocial behavior in chimpanzees and human children in order to illuminate the phylogeny and ontogeny of social behavior. Collaborative work with Joan Silk, Sarah Brosnan, Daniel Povinelli, and Jennifer Vonk. Project Proposal.

Building a Program in Culture and Cognition

Funded by NSF Anthropology for 5 years. Aim is to understand the ontogeny of culture through a detailed study of  cultural learning using in-depth ethnography, social networks, and experiments in Fijian villages. Project Proposal.  Project Webpage.

The Roots of Human Sociality: An Ethno-Experimental Exploration of the Foundations of Economic Norms in 16 Small-Scale Societies

Primary Investigators are Joe Henrich and Jean Ensminger (Cal Tech). Fund by NSF (Anthropology, Economics and Decision Science) for 3 years starting in 2002.

Beginning in 1997, we undertook a cross-cultural experimental study in fifteen small-scale societies scattered across the world including Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Indonesia. We found that there was considerably more variation in behavior across societies than had previously been reported, and that it correlated positively with the societies’ degree of involvement in the market. 

We set out in Phase II of the project to extend our work on the co-evolution of pro-social norms and the market. In conjunction with new core experiments (the dictator game, the ultimatum game with strategy method, and the third party-punishment game), new sites, and a more rigorous protocol, we also vastly increased the socio-demographic data collection. In addition, some sites ran double blind dictator games, contextualized versions of games, and trust experiments combined with network analysis. Project ProposalProject Website.