I subscribe to the theoretical perspective that human cognition is fundamentally social (or more accurately, cultural). Namely, the main reason that humans managed to survive and (arguably) succeed lies in our capacity to generate a cultural niche (e.g., Boyd, Richerson, & Henrich, 2011) and gradually accumulate knowledge from one generation to another. This knowledge is maintained and transferred from mind to mind via a process of symbol-based interaction (i.e., interaction via language and other conventional symbol systems). Given that the mechanisms for symbol-based interaction seem to play such a fundamental role in human cognition, it is likely that our cognition relies (at least to some extent) on internal symbol manipulation, of the type we use in social exchange (i.e., a “language of thought”).
This predicament supposedly creates an animal with a mind that is primarily controlled by mental representations created by other humans (e.g., practices, norms, social facts). Unlike other animals, our behavior is not strictly controlled by biological evolution; rather, we are fundamentally shaped by processes of cultural evolution—namely, shaped by ideas that reproduce and mutate within our society. This view of the importance of ideas in shaping human nature is best explicated within Dual-Inheritance Theory (e.g., Richerson & Boyd, 1978), and the symbolic interaction perspective (i.e., Mead, 1934).
Humans’ unique predicament is that while we are symbol-processing species, we are symbol-processors who are also, undeniably, primates. This perplexing aspect of the human condition lies at the heart of my thinking.
What does it mean to be a symbol-processing primate? In addressing this question, I find myself drawn in my research to the following overarching research topics:
1. I study the mechanisms of uniquely-human cultural-symbolic cognition, and their effects on behavior (see, e.g., Gilead, Trope, & Liberman, in press, target article Behavioral and Brain Sciences)
2. I study the ubiquity of evolutionarily-ancient, “primate psychology” within domains of behavior we typically think of as dependent on symbolic thought (see, e.g., Gilead & Liberman, 2014, Psychological Science)
3. I study the interaction between “symbolic” the and “primate mind” (see, e.g., Gilead et al., 2016; PNAS)