Research Lines 

Anxiety and ritualized behavior

Why students rub their lucky charms before they sit for exams and athletes insist on wearing their lucky socks for months? Why Trobriand Islanders ritualize before they go fishing in the open sea but not before they fish in shallow lagoons? Inspired by Bronislaw Malinowski, we investigate how uncertain situations drive people to exercise precaution and try to regain control over threats and adversities by any means. In highly uncontrollable situations such as during wars, untreatable diseases, or risky hunting, anxiety threatens to destabilize the human cognitive system. We argue that by engaging in stereotypical and predictable behavioral and verbal patterns, people regain back the feeling of control through increased ability to predict their own internal states. Manipulating uncertainty both in the lab and in the field, we investigate cognitive mechanisms that drive spontaneous ritualization and its purported effects on anxiety alleviation.

Religion and intragroup cooperation

Are people nicer in church compared to bar? Do we behave differently in the presence of religious statues? Does collective ritual dance affect cooperation and sense of closeness among believers? Evolutionary game theory informs us that benefits of collective action are constantly threatened by freeriding. We see religion as a highly efficient mechanism stabilizing risky coordination among genetically unrelated individuals. Combining methods from experimental anthropology and experimental psychology, we test effects of contextual religious priming, agentic cues, religious music, motor synchrony, and physiological arousal on prosocial behavior, group cohesion, and coordination among members of religious groups.

Religion and signaling theory

Why religious rituals involve self-harming and dangerous behavior such as subincision, scarring, and other bodily mutilations? Why people kneel when they talk to their gods? Why rituals include such exaggerated formality, invariability, and repetition? Consider the problem of communal field-irrigation. While an even water distribution irrigates everyone’s field just enough, allocating more water from the public supply to one’s own field can significantly increase the field’s yield. However, an increasing number of free-riders will destabilize the communal irrigation system, which will eventually break down. We see ritual behavior as an evolved communication platform affording group coordination by identifying dishonest individuals and building mutual trust through commitment signaling.

Intuitions, beliefs, moral models, and human evolution

Do internal representations of morality predict moral behavior? Does cross-cultural variance beat every moral universality? Does holding mental models of gods as punitive and monitoring affect fairness? Do we intuitively associate immorality with atheists? Using the co-evolution of religion and morality as a starting point, we investigate various mechanisms that religious systems harness to regulate human social behavior. We are assessing the role of religious beliefs and moral cognition in defining and shifting in-group/out-group boundaries, effectively expanding the social circle beyond kin and kith.

Evolutionary phylogeny of religions

What are the patterns and macro-evolutionary processes in the history of religious systems? Are cultural evolutionary processes of speciation patterned in the same way as observed in biological evolution? What are the determinants of speciation in religions? Contrary to the common notion, religions are not unchanging homogenous traditions, they are rather flexibly adapting and diverging systems of beliefs and practices. Emphasizing resource competition between religious social groups, we use comparative cross-cultural historical data on formation and extinction of branches in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, to test theories about increases and decreases of split rates in their lineages.