The project "Agripath – Sustainable agriculture through effective and efficient digital pathways" aims to bring sustainable agriculture to scale. By combining tailor-made digital solutions with extension services, female and male smallholders are provided with tools to support increases in their agricultural productivity, income, and resilience through sustainable farming practices. Agripath will study intra-household decision making, with a special emphasis on gender roles, and offer improved democratic access to information and knowledge within households (e.g. youth instead of head of household only). The fieldwork for Agripath is taking place in Burkina Faso, Uganda, Tanzania, India, and Nepal. Detailed information can be found on the general website for the project.
In the past several years, researchers have made striking advances in isolating the causal effects of entertaining narratives on attitudes and behavior. At the same time, although these studies have shown that stories shape attitudes and behavior, we typically do not understand what exactly makes a given narrative compelling. Narratives do more than simply convey information. Characters and events provide a simulation of cause and effect in a relevant setting. Narratives provide role models, facilitate counterfactual thinking, and encourage empathy and perspective taking by leading a person to identify with a character she would not normally identify with. The question is, what mix of hypothesized mechanisms is causing a narrative to change attitudes and behavior? We currently run studies examining if and how narrative communications can improve human well-being in Malawi and South Africa. Experimental studies of narratives have also been an important part of our research in Sudan on child well-being.
Humans are, of course, unusually prosocial in comparison to other animals, and the evolution of human prosocial behavior has become an acrimonious and controversy-filled area of research in human evolutionary ecology. In spite of this, we use models and behavioral experiments to enter the fray from time to time. We focus in particular on questions related to partner choice, evolved ancestral psychologies based on reputational mechanisms, and selection at the group level. Relevant experimental work with Bolivian farmers, WEIRD subjects in several countries, and Swiss children.
The strategies people use when they learn from others drive cultural evolution. The question then is, what strategies do people use? Moreover, what kinds of cultural evolution actually follow from a population with a certain distribution of social learning strategies? A number of lab members use both models and experiments to examine these questions. In particular, we have and continue to run experiments with a wide range of subject pools. These include Bolivian pastoralists, Sudanese pastoralists and farmers, WEIRD subjects from several countries, Indian students, Kenyans (students and otherwise), highly partisan Republicans/Democrats in the U.S., and children in Switzerland. The following seems clear; within and across diverse subject pools, people learn from each other in wildly heterogeneous ways.
Development organizations, policy makers, and practitioners of various kinds are widely engaged in efforts to steer cultural evolution in ways that improve human welfare. An especially influential hypothesis is that social learning based on coordination and conformity creates multiple equilibria and tipping points at the population level. Consequently, if a society has a harmful cultural tradition, individuals can do little to alleviate the suffering that occurs as a result of this tradition. They are embedded in a society in equilibrium on the wrong side of a tipping point. Individuals who deviate from the tradition can only increase their suffering. Nonetheless, a policy maker, broadly conceived, can intervene, engineer a coordinated move across the tipping point, and social learning will switch from supporting a harmful tradition to supporting a welfare-improving alternative. In this way, policy makers can recruit cultural evolutionary processes to activate beneficial behavior change. We have collaborated extensively with development agencies on projects built around this logic, especially FGC in Sudan and sex-selective abortion in Armenia. This research, often quite applied in nature, has fed back into our research program on cultural evolution more broadly. In particular, it has convinced us that future progress on the study of cultural evolution will require a collective reckoning with the wild heterogeneity in social learning strategies that real social learners seem to exhibit.
When and how do harmful traditions evolve culturally and persist? These are among the most challenging questions researchers and practitioners face when addressing behaviors that are clearly cultural, but also at odds with policy objectives. We examine the cultural evolution of harmful traditions using a mix of modeling, traditional behavioral experiments, and fieldwork. Much of this work is basic research in the sense that it is not strongly tied to any specific location or cultural context. Much of the work, however, is about a specific issue in a specific place, including female genital cutting in Sudan, sex-selective abortion in Armenia, and corruption in South Africa.