The interplay of the universal human mind and the variation of human culture motivates Cristine's research program. She studies the capacity to learn, create, and transmit culture to increase our understanding of the cognitive and cultural evolution of our species. Cristine's experimental and ethnographic research integrates theory and methodology from cognitive and evolutionary anthropology, psychology, and philosophy to examine the co-construction of cognition and culture. She has active field sites in southern Africa, the U.S., Brazil, and Vanuatu (a Melanesian archipelago).

Ontogeny of Cultural Learning

Humans are a social species and much of what we know we learn from others. In a systematic program of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, Cristine's objective is to develop a cognitive developmental account of how children flexibly use imitation and innovation as dual engines of cultural learning. She integrates a novel theoretical perspective on cultural learning with mixed-methodologies in the following lines of research:


In order to be effective and efficient learners, children must be selective about when to innovate, when to imitate, and to what degree. Although the majority of research on imitation in early childhood has examined the acquisition of instrumental knowledge, imitation is equally necessary to acquire the cultural conventions or rituals of social groups. Cristine proposes that the psychological systems supporting the learning of instrumental skills and cultural conventions are facilitated by the differential activation of two modes of interpretation: an instrumental stance (i.e., interpretation based on physical causation) and a ritual stance (i.e., interpretation based on cultural convention and social stipulation). What distinguishes instrumental from conventional practices often cannot be determined directly from the action alone but requires interpretation by the learner based on social cues and contextual information.

Research questions:
What kind of information do children use to determine when to engage in imitation versus innovation?
How does high fidelity imitation versus innovation support learning both instrumental skills and cultural conventions?


Cross-cultural research on the interplay of imitation and innovation in early childhood has the unique potential to inform the development of new theoretical perspectives on cultural learning. Cultures differ dramatically along a number of dimensions that Cristine proposes have profound impacts on how imitation and innovation are socialized in early childhood (i.e., cultural values, primary caregivers, pedagogical style, and parenting style). To date, there is a dearth of cognitive science research in non-Western contexts and little is known about the impact of diverse childrearing environments and caretaking practices on the development of cultural learning. Cristine is conducting cross-cultural studies in multiple childrearing environments in the United States (Austin, Texas) and Vanuatu (Tanna), cultural contexts that represent key aspects of the diversity of human childrearing practices. The research in Tanna involves a mutually beneficial and previously established partnership between her lab and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre to preserve information about the beliefs, values, and practices of this unique cultural context.

Research questions:
Is there cross-cultural variation in how children learn instrumental skills and cultural conventions?
How does learning instrumental skills versus cultural conventions vary in different social contexts (i.e., single child, parent-child, and peer learning)?


Examining the development of ritual behavior has implications for understanding the emergence of social group cognition in childhood as well as increasing our knowledge of the general human tendency to prefer in-group members to out-group members. Cristine proposes that learning cultural conventions is motivated by a drive to affiliate with social groups. In a systematic line of research of conventional behavior in children’s social groups, she aims to provide a new theoretical foundation for understanding ritual—a psychologically understudied, yet pervasive, feature of human social group cognition and behavior.

Research questions:
What are the implications of learning cultural conventions for social group cognition?
How does the experience of ostracism in the context of in-groups versus out-groups influence affiliative behavior?

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Cristine’s research on the ontogeny of cultural learning is funded by a Large Grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) & by the John Templeton Foundation as part of the Ritual, Community, and Conflict Project.

Reasoning About Causality


Cristine examines how children and adults navigate the task of reconciling different kinds of causal explanations—such as natural and supernatural explanations—to make sense of the world around them. Research conducted across a variety of domains, age groups, and cultural contexts has demonstrated several different ways that natural and supernatural explanations are accommodated, reconciled, and used to explain multiple levels of causality. For example, she has studied how individuals explain what causes AIDS in rural and urban South African populations, where supernatural (witchcraft) explanations are integrated with Western biomedical explanations. She found that supernatural and biological explanations provide distinct, complementary causal information. Her research indicates that reasoning about supernatural phenomena is an integral and enduring aspect of human cognition, not a transient or ephemeral element of childhood cognition that is readily displaced by science or objectivity.

Research questions:
How do we interpret multiple levels of causation, and how are different kinds of explanations reconciled in our minds?


Rituals pose a cognitive paradox: Although widely used to treat problems, they are cultural conventions and lack causal explanations for their effects. This raises a conceptual question: How do people evaluate the perceived efficacy of ritual action in the absence of causal information? Cristine examines the kinds of information that influence perceptions of the efficacy of ritual action. She proposes that information reflecting intuitive causal principles (i.e., repetition of procedures, number of procedural steps) and transcendental influence (such as the presence of religious icons) affect how people evaluate ritual efficacy. In an ongoing line of research in Brazil, she examines reasoning about religious or supernatural expertise, how ritual efficacy is evaluated, and how perceptions of control influence the evaluation of ritual efficacy.

Research questions:
How do we learn the rituals of our communities, and how do we evaluate how effective these rituals are?

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Cristine’s research on reasoning about causality is funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Development of Scientific Reasoning


Children actively seek to understand the world around them—they seek explanations for why and how things happen. Cristine proposes that unexpected or anomalous events are powerful triggers for explanatory reasoning. Children try to explain unexpected phenomena and they explore causal connections through play. In ongoing work, Cristine is examining how children’s explanations and exploratory play behavior work in tandem to guide their causal learning and scientific reasoning, and the implications of this process for improving science education in schools and children’s museums.

Research questions:
What motivates and what constrains children’s causal explanatory reasoning—and how might this link to later science understanding?


Much of what children learn is based on information acquired through the testimony of others. In an ongoing line of research, Cristine is investigating the development of inquiry in early childhood. She examines how children learn from other people and the development of questions as strategic problem-solving tools.

Research questions:
What strategies do children use to learn from others?
How do children use questions as tools to acquire new knowledge?

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Cristine’s research on the development of scientific reasoning is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the Explaining, Exploring, and Scientific Reasoning in Museum Settings Project.


Research on reasoning about biological processes like illness, contamination, and evolution provides insight into the nature and development of concepts and categories. Cristine has conducted extensive research in South Africa on how people explain AIDS and is currently examining cross-cultural variation in how people reason about the natural world across diverse ecological environments. In an ongoing line of research, she is also studying the cognitive biases that impede understanding of natural selection to develop better ways to teach evolutionary concepts.

Research questions:
How does biological reasoning develop and how do cognition and culture co-construct biological thought?
How can understanding biological reasoning be used to improve biology and health education?

See articles on biothought »