2015 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Cristine H. Legare

University of Texas at Austin


What is the focus of your award-winning research?

My work reflects a strong commitment to interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the development and evolution of cognition and culture. Humans are psychologically prepared to learn from others. They also display a wider repertoire of socially acquired and transmitted beliefs and behaviors that vary more than any other species. Despite the large literature examining what is unique about human social learning relative to that of other primates, much less is known about cultural variability in social learning within our species. I study how humans flexibly respond and adapt to diverse ontogenetic contexts and cultural ecologies. In ongoing work, I am studying how children flexibly use imitation and innovation as dual engines of cultural learning. Examining how our universal cognitive system enables us to use tools, to engage in innovation, and to become members of diverse cultural communities provides unique insight into cognitive and cultural evolution.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

The interplay of the universal human mind and the variation of human culture spark my curiosity and motivate my research program. I’ve spent much of my research time studying and conducting research abroad. I am intrigued by both cultural commonalities and cultural diversities in beliefs and behavior. In my research, I integrate theory and methodology from cognitive and evolutionary anthropology, cognitive and developmental science, and philosophy to examine the interplay of cognition and culture. I have conducted extensive research in southern Africa and am currently conducting research in Brazil, China, the United States, and Vanuatu, a Melanesian island nation in the South Pacific. Vanuatu is one of the most remote, culturally and linguistically diverse, and understudied countries in the world. It provides a unique opportunity to explore the development of cultural learning in communities with limited exposure to Western education and influence. I conduct research in educational, home, and peer environments in both the United States (Austin, Texas) and Vanuatu (Tanna) to increase what is known about the impact of culturally diverse child-rearing environments, child-rearing practices, and social dynamics on the development of cultural learning.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

The decision to work with my graduate mentor, Susan Gelman, was the best professional decision I have ever made. In our first conversation about potential topics of research, I mentioned that I wanted to integrate theory and methodology from cognitive anthropology and developmental psychology to examine cognitive development in diverse cultural contexts. I had spent a year living in South Africa as an undergraduate and wanted to return to examine how Western biomedical and witchcraft explanations were used to explain AIDS.

When I reflect on this early conversation with Susan, I am amazed that she agreed to let me undertake such an ambitious and complex project as a first-year graduate student. It turned out that her support for this project was characteristic of her longstanding enthusiasm for my research on topics that extend outside of mainstream psychological research (e.g., witchcraft and ritual). Rather than directing me towards more well-established research topics or projects more directly related to her existing research, she gave me the freedom and support I needed to effectively explore the issues that I was most excited about. She assisted me at every stage of the research process, including helping me secure funding to do months of fieldwork in the Gauteng province of South Africa, advising me on experimental design, and guiding me through the academic writing process.

Susan taught me a number of ways of thinking about the field and my career that have proven to be invaluable. She taught me how to be mastery-oriented in my research. She helped me move beyond feelings of frustration when I encountered obstacles, an inevitable part of the scientific process, particularly if you study unorthodox research topics without previously established research literatures and methodological toolkits within your discipline. She helped me learn how to make the topics I am interested in relevant to theoretical questions psychologists recognize as central to understanding human cognition and social behavior. Susan also taught me how to be an independent thinker. High-impact scientific contributions require more than taking what someone else has already done and tinkering with it a bit to get a publication. Instead, it is important to approach old problems in new ways and be willing to challenge conventional ways of thinking and conducting research. I am profoundly grateful for her exceptional mentorship, and for her support of everything I wanted to do — from studying AIDS in South Africa to pursuing an academic career.

My undergraduate mentors, Gail Heyman and Sonja Baumer, have been longstanding sources of support and encouragement. They introduced me to diverse methodologies and theoretical perspectives, inspiring me to pursue a career in psychological research.

Paul Harris, Henry Wellman, and Harvey Whitehouse have been exceptionally supportive mentors and have made highly influential contributions to my professional development and training.

I am also grateful to Joe Henrich, Ara Norenzayan, Alison Gopnik, Paul Rozin, Paul Bloom, Frank Keil, Bruce Hood, Maureen Callanan, Doug Medin, Robert McCauley, Margaret Evans, Tanya Luhrmann, Michael Cole, Deb Kelemen, Amanda Woodward, Art Markman, and David Buss for intellectual inspiration and support of my research program. The success of my research program is due in large part to the mentorship and support of my colleagues. I strive to provide the kind of supportive mentorship I have received to other junior scholars and students.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

My undergraduate training in human development and cultural studies at the University of California, San Diego, was highly interdisciplinary. It included coursework in cognitive science, cognitive and psychological anthropology, engineering, and evolutionary biology. The diversity of my undergraduate training has allowed me to approach psychological research from the perspective of multiple scientific disciplines. My research interests often begin outside the traditional boundaries of psychological inquiry. For example, ethnography is full of rich psychological insights about human behavior; I often use ethnographic data to inform the design of my experimental research.

In graduate school, I participated in the Culture and Cognition Program while completing my PhD in developmental psychology at the University of Michigan. The combination of coursework and methodological training in cognitive anthropology and experimental psychology provided me with the diverse tool kit required to conduct research at the intersection of psychology and anthropology.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

This award provides recognition of the scientific value of the kind of interdisciplinary, unorthodox research that I conduct. Interdisciplinary research is the future of social science, and I am honored to be part of this scientific movement.