Dr Michael Muthukrishna is an Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE.
What are you currently working on?
Lately I’ve been working on a tool to reliably quantify cultural differences and cultural distances. Since many of the most urgent problems require cooperation between very different people and very different societies, quantifying these differences is crucial to understanding the invisible cultural pillars that uphold successful institutions. Some early results suggest that this tool can help us understand the success and failures in cooperation between and within countries, why democracies work better in some places than others, why levels of corruption vary and so on.
More broadly, my work contributes to a theory of human behaviour that emerges from evolutionary biology. The core questions we address are why and how humans are different to other animals. A growing consensus seems to be that we’re a new kind of animal who’s behaviour is guided not just by our inherited genes from our parents and acquired experience through our lives, but also the inherited experience from our societies. This body of beliefs and behaviours, norms, values, and technologies have accumulated over many generations to the point where not even the brightest of our generation could recreate the world we live in today. Our species spanned the globe and solved problems posed by each new environment. We did it by selectively copying successful people often, and perhaps usually, without understanding why their beliefs and behaviors lead to successful outcomes. Look up “cultural evolution” or “dual inheritance theory” if you want to learn more.
What is the biggest challenge in psychological research at the moment?
The replication crisis. In my view, psychological and behavioural science are currently where chemistry was before the periodic table or biology was before Darwinism. Before these organizing theoretical frameworks, the world seemed chaotic and the links between different phenomenon were not apparent. We learned about the world by carefully collecting data or by “wiggling switches” so to speak and seeing what happened. This led to useful innovations like gunpowder and animal breeding, but also a lot of wasted efforts like trying to turn lead into gold or failing to see how other animals could be used as models for our own species. Dual inheritance theory for the social world is a promising candidate for the equivalent of the period table in chemistry or the theory of natural selection in biology. If dual inheritance theory and cultural evolution continue to predict and explain phenomena, they offer a theoretical framework for the social sciences.
You use social media to talk about your work. What does social media mean to you?
I actually hate social media! It’s a continuous flow of information where the signal to noise ratio varies dramatically (part of what makes it so addictive) and it wastes a lot of time. But I’m a public servant and I think of my job as two-fold. My first job is to do the best work I can in a way that benefits society in the short or long term, and my second job is to tell people about that work. Social media helps me do the latter better.
During the Enlightenment there were coffeehouses where people would come together to discuss and debate ideas. Coffeehouses served an important function in driving innovation. Twitter communities strike me as the coffeehouses of our time.
Some of Michael’s recent papers:
Muthukrishna, M. (2019). Cultural Evolutionary Public Policy. Nature Human Behaviour.
- Michael writes about how behavioural interventions that aim to reverse trends such as female genital cutting fail & a new cultural evolutionary model that may guide future change [Download]
Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2019). A Problem in Theory. Nature Human Behaviour.
- More about the replication crisis [Download]
Muthukrishna, M. (2017). Bribery, Cooperation, and the Evolution of Prosocial Institutions. Evonomics.
- How the science of cooperation and cultural evolution will give us new tools in combating corruption. Read the article here.
Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690).
- Our smarts are culturally acquired and alter our brains ability to adapt and innovate [Download]
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mmuthukrishna
(In) Focus series in full
You were at the 20th Norwegian Conference on Social Psychology and Community Psychology, can you tell us more about why you were there?
I was invited to present in a symposium at the 20th Norwegian Conference which was held in at the University of Tromsø, which is the most Northern University in the world. I presented some work that I conducted with Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington and an MSc student Sophie Brinkmann. I presented work in which we aimed to understand how lower social economics status influences cognitive performance. In particular, we were interested in understanding whether making bias in cognitive testing explicit as having been corrected (hence in the past) or being ongoing (hence in the future) would have consequences for cognitive performance. Unfortunately, our results did not yield conclusive results, which could be due difficulties in replicating previous work on stereotype threat or in using a relatively invariant measure of cognitive performance.
What are you currently working on?
I have two main projects at the moment. One is on religious identities in the workplace; we published a systematic literature review scoping the literature and are now in the process of analysing qualitative and collecting quantitative data on the topic (read the paper here.. My second larger project is in collaboration with Neela Muehlemann and we work with the London Fire Brigade to examine how team/group dynamics influence stress and well-being.
What do you like most about teaching in the department?
I most like the interaction with people from all over the world, who bring their own experiences and ideas that help to rethink theories and practises that we teach.
You are working on the Pathways to Reconciliation project, can you tell us about that?
The Pathways project comprises a UK-Colombian partnership, with a team of academics, researchers, professionals, NGO activists and practitioners from Fundación para la Reconciliación, Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá in Colombia and us (PBS at LSE). The project is rich and challenging because we are reaching out to communities in remote Colombian territories, which were often the battleground of the internal armed conflict that battered the country for decades. In terms of the research, we adopt a socio-cultural approach to human development under contextual adversity, where we are directly exploring experiences, meanings and narratives of young people and adults from five rural municipalities across the country. The project is centred on looking at the impact of the Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation (ES.PE.RE), a third-sector programme run by our NGO partners, on the psychological and social wellbeing of people living in these communities. We focus on mental health, social capital and lifetracks through a mixed method longitudinal design.
The project involves a lot of fieldwork and travel to Colombia, what do you enjoy about carrying out research abroad?
To me, carrying out research in Colombia is both a heartening and much needed experience, as it brings you out of the ‘WEIRD’ (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) bubble. By working in the global south, I get confronted with the palpable realities of how context shapes life trajectories, keeping me grounded on the contradictions and difficulties that so many people face on a daily basis to overcome adversity. On a personal dimension, it enables me to explore and encounter my country differently, visiting remote territories that I had only heard about, where I get to witness first-hand their exuberant environment and life.
What is your favourite place in London to visit?
I don’t have a favourite place per se, London is vast so I feel I would need to take it borough-by-borough but when I am walking around the city itself, say from Monument towards the Tower Hill area, there is a delightful little ruined medieval church almost submerged in the greyness of modern buildings that is St Dunstan’s in the East. It carries the city’s history, having been damaged by the great fire and centuries later by the Blitz; yet today it stands adorned by the vines and foliage that embrace its leftover walls, offering a bench of tranquillity in its secluded garden, a place away from the frenetic urban energy to simply be.
The Pathways to Reconciliation project is currently underway with fieldwork in different locations in Colombia. To keep up to date with the research follow Pathways to Reconciliation on Twitter and visit the Pathways website.
Dr Sandra Obradovic, LSE Fellow & Amena Amer, PhD student talk to us about their 'misrecognition' framework and their tips for anyone thinking about doing a PhD.
You recently presented work on a misrecognition framework. Can you tell us more about it?
Identity recognition (or lack thereof) plays an important role in our experiences of belonging and exclusion, equality and inequality, and cohesion and polarisation within our social contexts. Social psychology however has failed to explicitly incorporate recognition into a theoretical framework which ensures our acknowledgement of its importance in understanding identity and intergroup processes.
How is this related to the work you currently do?
Amena: My PhD (‘Being a White British Muslim: Experiences of identity (mis/non) recognition and strategies of identity performance in response’) draws on two studies that examine the experiences of identity recognition and negotiation of white British Muslims. These studies explore their perceived and actual ethnic and religious recognition by both British Muslims and British non-Muslims.
The first study uses qualitative data to understand the experiences of, and strategic performative responses to, identity (mis/non)recognition.
The second study uses experimental design to explore the role of identity markers e.g. English or Arabic names, wearing hijab, having a beard, or no marker influence behaviours toward that person.
Sandra: The misrecognition framework links to my interest in how the nature of identities shape perceptions of politics, and the important role of ‘what we think other people think’ in these contexts. In particular, the role of recognition (or lack thereof) has emerged in my work on citizens ambivalence to EU integration in Serbia and the role that more ‘powerful’ others play in creating that ambivalence, and more recently, my work on perspective-taking among ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, and how people turn the opinions of ‘the other side’ into reflections of who they are.
What advice would you give a student thinking of doing a PhD?
Speak to PhD students (especially those in the department in the university they are thinking of applying to because it can be very different across universities/departments) about the process to get a feel for what it's like. To think about who they want their supervisor to be and to speak to them about their idea. Also, I would suggest really thinking about what they want to do before they approach a supervisor. This doesn't need to be a finished PhD proposal, but some specifics are good because it allows you to have a constructive conversation with your potential supervisor.
Our moments of happiness and fulfillment mostly come from the ‘stuff’ we cannot see, our emotions and our thoughts. Taking time for self-care and investing into our mental health can make these moments even more appreciable, as well as help us find solace during the moments when things might not be going exactly the way we would like them to.
Mental health is often overlooked but is so extremely vital, especially during your studies. Meet Dimitris: Yoga teacher, PBS staff & department alumnus, LSE Mental Health First Aider and all-round healer & calming presence. Dimitris is trained to spot mental health issues and provide first-step support. If you have a problem that you want to discuss, please email Dimitris on email@example.com so he can find the best way to help.
Physical and mental health go hand in hand, so why not join Dimitris for an ashtanga yoga class right here on LSE campus.
Every Tuesday and Friday, 13:00-14:00, 2nd floor of the SU building, step away and take some time for yourself. Email firstname.lastname@example.org before your first class for a brief description on what to expect.
Classes are £5 each.