Michael Muthukrishna’s quest to understand the human puzzle

Dr. Michael Muthukrishna

Michael Muthukrishna’s curiosity about human systems and the psychology underlying culture led him to UBC—and ultimately to a ground-breaking career as a scientist.

Muthukrishna, currently an assistant professor at the London School of Economics, received his PhD in Psychology in 2015. He was awarded the prestigious 2016 CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Social Sciences for his dissertation ‘The Cultural Brain Hypothesis and the Transmission and Evolution of Culture’.

In his dissertation, Muthukrishna discusses theories to explain the evolution of the human brain and human social networks. His findings suggest that human “smarts” are acquired, not hardwired, and the key lies in our social networks.

His work has appeared in an array of publications and multi-media platforms, from academic journals including the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and Evolution and Human Behavior, to award-winning videos, to blogs, media outlets, and magazines.

In 2015, Muthukrishna was named one of five winners of the SSHRC Storytellers challenge. Watch his winning submission below:

In this Q&A Muthukrishna discusses his research, his mentors, and why he chose UBC. He also shares some sound advice for current and future graduate students.

First of all, why did you choose UBC for your graduate studies?
It’s a long story! In undergrad, I studied two degrees—engineering and psychology— and I was working in an area called Human Factors[1] while finishing my degree. I was doing research on smart home technologies and I came across an area of engineering called Control Theory. Control Theory mathematically describes dynamical systems, including human-machine interfaces, like humans controlling drones, rocket ships, or cars. A simple example is adjusting a shower knob back and forth due to a delay between turning the knob and the temperature in the shower. In any case, when I graduated, a natural pathway seemed to be to continue to work as a software or computer engineer, or go to graduate school to do more research on smart home technologies. It occurred to me that the math of Control Theory could be used to describe humans mutually socially influencing each other (human-human interfaces!). It seemed like this approach might help in creating a formal science of culture.

I had been thinking a lot about culture. I was living in Australia at the time, a fairly successful multicultural society, but I had also seen how divisive culture could be. I had spent time in Sri Lanka during its 25-year civil war and lived in Botswana during South Africa’s transition from Apartheid, Papua New Guinea during the Sandline Affair and subsequent coup, and most recently, London during its 2005 “homegrown” terrorist attacks. The London bombings were a particular puzzle—what had gone so wrong with British immigration policy that second-generation migrants felt a connection to a country they’d barely been in, to the point where they wanted to kill their fellow citizens? It seemed to me that many policies around immigration, multiculturalism, and intergroup conflict were based on ideology rather than good science. And in part, the reason was that the science didn’t exist (or so I thought!). In my mind, Control Theory might be the solution to developing that science.

At the time, I was thinking about the problem like an engineer, and I needed to know more about the input to the system—the psychology underlying culture. I googled “Psychological Foundations of Culture” and found a book Mark Schaller had edited with that title. Reading his work, I thought Mark would be an ideal advisor for what seemed like an unconventional idea in psychology (I was right; Mark is wonderfully open and unconventional!). I was flying to the US on work, so it seemed like a good opportunity to visit UBC. Unfortunately, Mark was on sabbatical at the time, but he suggested it would be worthwhile meeting some of his colleagues, particularly Joe Henrich and Steve Heine. When I met Steve and Joe, I knew UBC was where I wanted to be. Steve had a wealth of knowledge and research on cross-cultural differences. Joe’s research program on cultural evolution was a far richer version of what I had in mind. I applied and they accepted.

Did you have a particular mentor in the department of psychology and if so, how did this mentor inspire you?

Joe Henrich, Mark Schaller and Steve Heine were my key mentors. Each brought a different aspect to my training. Theoretically, I immediately clicked with Joe. You’ll have to ask him, but from my perspective, we both took a systems-level view of the problem, zooming into the details as needed. It might have been the engineering training (Joe’s a former aerospace engineer), but it was easy to understand each other. Mark is a brilliant writer and an expert on the inner workings of academia. In addition to our ongoing work on social networks, I learned so much about the academic process from him. Steve was my collaborator and go to for cultural psychology (he literally wrote the textbook). I miss being able to pop into his office for a quick chat on just about anything; he was on the receiving end for some of my wilder ideas. All three were wonderful mentors and I consider all three of them friends.

What led you to study the psychology of culture and evolution?

I wanted to understand how culture worked, but the link to evolution wasn’t obvious until I got to UBC. I had taken evolutionary psychology in undergrad and read a lot of Steven Pinker, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides work. I found it interesting and was convinced that an evolutionary approach was essential to unifying psychology (down with the SSSM!), but it wasn’t mathematically formalized, and I wasn’t convinced by their approach to culture. It was at UBC that the pieces started to fit together as I read Rob Boyd, Pete Richerson, and Joe’s work on Dual Inheritance Theory and cultural evolution and took classes on evolutionary biology with Michael Doebeli and Michael Whitlock. As it turns out, the math of Control Theory and the math of evolutionary biology for something like a predator-prey system are basically the same.

What questions do you try to answer in your research?

My overarching goal remains the same, although I feel like the science is now ready to target more applied questions (in a twist of fate, this area of my research agenda is closer to Human Factors-type applied psychology). I’m particularly interested in better understanding the role of culture and diversity on innovation, corruption, nation-building, counter-terrorism ideologies, the expanding moral circle, and inequality between and within nations. These seem like disparate topics, but I think they’re part of the same puzzle. Part of getting to these more applied problems is contributing to a Theory of Human Behavior. Dual Inheritance Theory is the closest we’ve ever come to a Theory of Human Behavior and a framework for unifying the biological and social sciences and that’s amazing. In my mind, a more complete Theory of Human Behavior lies at the intersection of biology, psychology, economics, anthropology, and will do to psychology and perhaps the other social sciences what the Periodic Table did for chemistry and natural selection did for biology—offer a framework through which everything suddenly makes sense. My current role as a faculty member at the London School of Economics is an ideal platform for this kind of work.

Can you tell us about any new research that you’re particularly excited about?

Joe and I recently published a paper on the Collective Brain. We argue that our brains are wired for culture (The Cultural Brain Hypothesis; the topic of my dissertation). When these cultural brains are wired up with other cultural brains in our societies and social networks, our societies and social networks act as collective brains. Innovation should really be thought of as a product of these collective brains; an innovation not requiring a specific innovator, any more than your thoughts require a particular neuron. We also argue that this is the key to understanding several puzzles in the intelligence literature, including the Flynn effect (the rise in IQ test scores over time). I’m very excited about our follow-up projects.

More immediately, the Database of Religious History (DRH), a project I developed as a side project during my PhD, just got funding from the Templeton Foundation, which secures its future (religiondatabase.org).

We’re also about to release an online tool that allows you to quantify how societies (or companies) are culturally different, and to determine the dimensions along which they differ. This tool makes accessible a technique drawn from the biological sciences for measuring genetic differences – applying the technique to large surveys of cultural values – and can be used as a WEIRD scale. Stay tuned!

Looking back, what is the most significant thing you learned during your time in UBC Psychology?
I learned a lot, so it’s hard to point to the most significant thing. I will say that UBC Psychology has one of the best statistical programs I’ve seen in a psychology department. Jeremy Biesanz, Ralph Hakstian, and Vika Savalei do a phenomenal job training graduate students to really understand what they’re doing and not treat statistics as a black box.

Lastly, do you have any advice for current and future graduate students?
I’m not sure if I have advice that applies broadly, but before I started graduate school, I read lots of “advice for getting a PhD”-type books. Some of the advice really stuck with me, and at least for me, rang true as I went through the program. I can’t take credit for this advice; like most aspects of culture, I’m just passing it on!

Graduate school is rough and the rewards are few and far between. Think twice before going – weigh up your options. Too many people just end up in graduate school because of inertia. I think folks like Catherine Rawn, Sunaina Assanand, and Ben Cheung (and no doubt the rest of the Learning Enhancement area!) are working hard to make the UBC undergrad program a more useful degree. They’re trying to introduce more rigorous statistics and real applications of research, connecting the classroom to problems in Canada and other countries. This seems like a good direction and will help people find alternative pathways.

In general, grad school can be a great time in your life, but only if you’re internally motivated and passionate about the topic. Relative to other things you can do with your life, your lifetime Expected Value pay (and perhaps your satisfaction) could be higher in other careers. You’ve got to be passionate about this path.

Related, (this might annoy some people) but the work-life balance doesn’t have to be on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. It’s still balance to work hard now and enjoy things later. I’m not saying work till you burn out, but if you love what you’re doing, it’s not really work, so relax so you can do more of what you love.

With the infrequent rewards and uncertain future, your friends are invaluable to get through grad school. It’s easy to feel lonely without a good group of grad school buddies (which I was lucky enough to have!). Having a supportive partner also helps! On the other hand, keep in mind that grad students (myself included) also love complaining. Complain along; it’s therapeutic, but don’t take it too seriously.

Your relationship with your advisor is like a marriage (and lasts longer than some!). Choose wisely. It’s not just an intellectual match; you need to be able to work closely with these people for a long time. As in most relationships, look for fundamentally good people whom you also get along with. After half a decade hanging out with them, I can say Joe, Mark, and Steve are genuinely good people. I still miss the MECC lab!


[1] Human Factors is the application of psychology to engineering design. It’s particularly important in safety critical systems, like medical operating theaters, aircrafts, and nuclear power plants, where user errors cost lives rather than just your patience (in contrast to your iPhone).