© Joseph Watts

Academic Interests

Humans are a particularly odd ape. We choose clothes based on arbitrary fashions, we perform elaborate rituals with opaque causal mechanisms, and we travel into outer space. Underlying this oddity is the human capacity for culture.

As a researcher I am interested in understanding how human culture is generated, transmitted, and changes over time. I am a member of the Cultural Evolution Society, a group of researchers that study culture from an evolutionary perspective. While the study of cultural evolution is an interdisciplinary endeavour, the discipline of psychology has a central role to play as it is the human mind that stores, transmits and generates cultural information.

The focus of my research ranges in scale from individual-level cognitive processes up to cultural-level patterns of change in human history. I use interactive online experiments to study the transmission of narratives, natural language processing to identify structure and variation in people’s worldviews, and phylogenetic comparative methods to model how features of culture co-evolve with one another over millennia.

Further information about my research can be found on the Research page and my full list of publications is available in my CV.


I come from Whanganui, New Zealand and was awarded a PhD in Psychology from the University of Auckland in 2017. I have since held positions as a Research Fellow in the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Group at the University of Oxford, a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and a Senior Lecturer in the Religion Programme at the University of Otago.

I am currently an External Research Associate of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology as well as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.