Pascal Boyer

Research Themes & Current Projects


Evolution, cognition and culture:
How does our evolved psychology explain human cultures?

Natural selection resulted in the development of highly specific capacities and motivations in human minds, specialized in handling different adaptive problems, e.g. face-recognition, building social coalitions, the selection of high-fitness mates, the optimization of foraging, etc. This perspective has revolutionized the study of anthropological issues such as religious concepts, morality, parenting, ethnicity, kinship and many other domains.

Representations that we call “cultural” are those that similar occur with roughly  content in other minds among people of a particular group, after many episodes of communication between individuals. How communication can have non-entropic effects is the question addressed by cultural transmission models.

See selected articles about evolutionary psychology and the transmission of cultural representations.

Coalitional psychology
What dispositions allow humans to form stable, highly cohesive groups?

Stable alliances are rare in most animal species. By contrast, cooperation among non-kin towards a common goal in stable and highly cohesive alliances is ubiquitous in human social interaction. How is that possible?

Coalitional psychology is a suite of specialized evolved motivations and capacities that enable humans to garner support from conspecifics, organize and maintain alliances, and increase an alliance’s chance of success against rival

See some articles on coalitional psychology.


Folk-economic beliefs:
How do human minds perceive market processes?

The domain of “folk-economics” consists in explicit beliefs about the economy held by laypeople, untrained in economics, including for instance anti-market attitudes or spontaneous protectionism. These beliefs often diverge from standard economic theory, and are usually described in terms of irrationality, biases and lack of information. As a result, there is so far so systematic study of the cognitive processes that make these beliefs compelling, despite their crucial role in policy choices. From an evolutionary cognitive perspective, we propose that information about economic phenomena is processed by a suite of specialized, largely automatic inference systems that emerged as adaptations to human sociality. A side-effect of these systems is to make some folk-economic beliefs more salient, easily acquired, and therefore culturally successful than others, with important consequences for political choices. 

Threat-detection: What threats do humans perceive?
What explains ritualized behavior?

For humans as well as many other species, survival and reproductive success require not just avoidance of present danger but also detection of indirect clues for fitness threats. A variety of neuro-cognitive systems handle these threats. They constitute the “hazard-precaution system” focused on such recurrent threats as predation, intrusion by strangers, contamination, contagion, social offence, and harm to offspring.

In collaboration with Pierre Lienard, we are trying to show that understanding threat-detection capacities in evolutionary terms allows us to make sense of disparate phenomena:

- pathologies of threat-detection like OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- the development of specific fears and anxiety in childhood
- the similarities between pathological rituals (OCD) and cultural ceremonies

See articles on threat-detection and ritualized behavior.


Religious thought & behavior:
Why religious representations? Why those particular beliefs?

What makes notions of supernatural agency – gods, spirits, ghosts – intuitively plausible? This was the focus of previous experimental and theoretical research. The explanation for religious beliefs and behaviours is to be found in the way all human minds work – all human minds, not just the minds of religious people or of some of them. What matters here are mental systems found in all human brains, to do with detection and representation of animacy and agency, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and understanding of misfortune. Cognitive science and neuroscience suggest that some religious representations are a probable, although by no means inevitable, by-product of normal mental function.

In recent years, in collaboration with Nicolas Baumard, I have done research on the emergence of religions, that is, organizations with explicit doctrine, priests or other ritual specialists. We are interested in the way some religions gave rise to moral movements (known as Axial Age religions in the literature), with a strong emphasis on personal development and morality. We relate this to sudden economic change in some urban civilizations
during the Axial Age period.

See books and articles on evolutionary cognitive explanations of religious representations.

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