The Social Dynamics of World Explanations




People disagree over how best to explain important features of the world we live in. Subjects that spark debate include the origin of the universe, what happens when we die, the kinds of behaviours that are immoral, and the origins of life on earth. These debates provide a rich source of data on the structure and dynamics of information at the individual and group levels.

Many factors have been proposed to underpin differences in people’s world explanations. These factors include individual differences in personality, cognitive styles, group affiliations and access to information. A major obstacle to testing the importance of these factors is the challenge of making large-scale systematic comparisons between people’s world explanations.

Advances in natural language processing open up a new range of possibilities for systematically classifying and comparing large bodies of textual data. These methods have the potential to transform the way that textual data is processed and efficiently compare the semantic similarity between people’s world explanations at an unprecedented scale.

I use natural language processing and interactive online studies to investigate the structure, variation and transmission of people’s world explanations. This includes studies on the overlap between Christian and non-religious people’s world explanations, as well as studies showing how individual differences in cognition can help explain the dynamics of group-level cultural change. This research shows how new approaches to text analysis can help expand our understanding of processes and patterns in cultural evolution.


Research Outputs

Watts, J., Passmore, S., Jackson, J.C., Rzymski, C., & Dunbar, R.D. (Submitted). Christians show greater variation in explanations of the natural world than non-religious people.

Watts, J. Passmore, S., & Dunbar, R.D. (In Prep.). The cultural evolution of world explanations: an online interactive study of social transmission.


External Links

Sam Passmore, University of Bristol

Prof Robin Dunbar, University of Oxford

OSF Project Page: Study on Christian and Secular World Explanations