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Culture and Ecology Lab (Varnum)

Keywords: culture; social class; cultural change; neuroscience; ecology; evolution

Lab Research Area:

The cultures we live in shape our minds and our behavior. The Culture and Ecology Lab focuses on how patterns of cultural variation and cultural change may be understood as responses to changes in basic ecological conditions (i.e. population density, pathogen prevalence, resource scarcity). In this line of research, we use frameworks and tools from behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, econometrics, big data, and cultural psychology. Using these tools, we believe we may not only be able to explain current patterns of cultural variation and past patterns of cultural change but to forecast future cultural trends. We also use EEG and ERP to study how cultural factors affect neural responses involved in a host of social cognitive processes.

Sound interesting? The lab is always looking for bright, conscientious undergraduates to work as research assistants.  If interested, please contact Michael Varnum.

Lab Director and Principle Investigator: Michael Varnum, PhD, Assistant Professor, Social Psychology, Department of Psychology

Michael VarnumProfessor Varnum uses insights from biology to help understand sources of cultural variation and causes of cultural change. In one line of research, he uses frameworks and tools from behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, and econometrics to understand the causes of patterns of cultural change and to forecast future patterns of change (including changes in individualism, gender equality, contempt, and lyrical complexity). He also uses ecology as a way to understand patterns of cultural variation. In addition, he uses EEG and ERP to explore cultural variations in a range of psychological processes including empathy, emotion regulation, and mirror responses to others’ motor movements. You can find his full CV here: Curriculum Vitae.

Graduate Students

Ryan Hampton, Doctoral Student, Social Psychology, Department of Psychology

Ryan is a fourth-year PhD student in Social Psychology. Ryan's research examines culture from psychological, anthropological, and neuroscientific perspectives. He studies how perceptions of time differ across culture and both what precedes these differences as well as their manifestations in daily life. He also studies the neural underpinnings of cultural differences in emotion regulation, self-enhancement, and basic analytical processing. He is also interested in statistical approaches to comparing cross-cultural data using multi-level modeling and fMRI data analysis using complex network analysis.

Jung Yul Kwon, Doctoral Student, Social Psychology, Department of Psychology

Yul is a second-year PhD student in Social Psychology. He studies prosocial behavior from cultural and evolutionary perspectives. He is interested in how different ecological factors contribute to divergent beliefs and norms regarding cooperation, as well as impressions of unfamiliar others as potential cooperative partners. His current projects explore the relationship between residential mobility and cooperative strategy in social dilemmas, and whether certain cultural learning biases may be favored under some environmental contexts.

Hannah Bercovici, Doctoral Student, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Hannah BercoviciHannah is a first year graduate student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Interplanetary Initiative. While her main research at SESE explores the dynamics of volcanic systems, she works with the Culture and Ecology Lab to determine how humans will react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Her current project explores the role of culture in the reaction of humanity to ET life.


Undergraduate Research Assistants

Abdulmohaimen Al Abdly
Sumayah Al Abdly
Caitlynn Barnes
Ivan Bascon
Krystina Boyd-Frenkel
Lauren Brachfeld
Alan De La Cruz
Dylan Fox
Caleb Haynes
Syed Huq
Jessica Johnson
Jake McAuliff
Courtney Monus
Justyn Zeider

Lab Alums

Former Graduate Students
Sarah Herrmann – Psychology PhD, 2017, Arizona State University. Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Weber State University

Former Undergraduate Research Assistants

Arianna Beverly – Psychology Major, Arizona State University
Sara Russell – Psychology Major, Arizona State University
Esha Naidu – Psychology BS, Suma Cum Laude, 2017, Arizona State University. Graduate Student (Phd, Social Psychology), SUNY Buffalo
Brianne Freeman – Psychology BS, 2017 Arizona State University. Graduate Student (PsyD), Nova Southeastern University
Taylor Brennan – Psychology BS, Magna Cum Laude, 2017, Arizona State University
Jen Jondac – Psychology BS, Cum Laude, Honors, 2017, Arizona State University
Katja Cunningham – Psychology BS, Magna Cum Ladue, 2016, Arizona State University
Wen Yu – Psychology BS, Sociology BS, Summa Cum Laude, 2016, Arizona State University
Shaunting Li – Psychology BS, Biochemistry BS, 2016, Arizona State University
Michael Della Maggiore – Psychology BA, Magna Cum Laude, 2015, Arizona State University
David Sobota – Psychology BA, Honors, 2015, Arizona State University

Select Publications

Below are publications from the Culture and Ecology Lab. Graduate student or Post-doc co-authors are noted with #’s. A more complete listing of Dr. Varnum’s publications may be found in his curriculum vitae.


In press

Sng, O.,# Neuberg, S. L., Varnum, M. E. W., & Kenrick, D. T. (in press). The behavioral ecology of cultural variation. Psychological Review.

Hampton, R. S.,# & Varnum, M. E. W.(in press). Do cultures vary in self-enhancement? ERP, behavioral, and self-report evidence. Social Neuroscience. 

Herrmann, S. D.,# & Varnum, M. E. W.(in press). The consequences of social class biculturalism for well-being, academic performance, and workplace adjustment. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Santos, H. C., # Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossmann, I. (in press). Culture, cognition, and cultural change in social class. In W. H. Berkhaus, & G. Ignatow (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Forthcoming.

Kitayama, S., Varnum, M. E. W., Salvador, C.# (in press). Cultural neuroscience. In D. Cohen & S. Kitayama (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Forthcoming.

Hampton, R. S.,# & Varnum, M. E. W.(in press). Individualism-collectivism. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. Forthcoming.


Kwon, J. Y.,# Bercovici, H.,# Cunningham, K.,# & Varnum, M. E. W. (2018). How will we react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life? Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2308. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02308


Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossmann, I. (2017). Cultural change: The how, and the why. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 956-972.

Santos, H. C., # Varnum, M. E. W., Grossmann, I. (2017). Global increases in individualism. Psychological Science, 28, 1228-1239.

Sng, O.,# Neuberg, S. L., Varnum, M. E. W., & Kenrick, D. T. (2017). The crowded life is a slow life: Population densities and human life history strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111, 736-754.

Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossmann, I. (2017). Socio-ecological changes are linked to changes in the prevalence of contempt over time. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40, e250. [commentary] 

Varnum, M. E. W.,& Kitayama, S. (2017). The neuroscience of social class. Current Opinion in Psychology, 18, 147-151. 

Krems, J. A.,# & Varnum, M. E. W. (2017). More than just climate: Income inequality and sex ratio are better predictors of cultural variations in aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40, e89. [commentary]

Grossmann, I., & Varnum, M. E. W.(2017). Divergent life histories and other ecological adaptations: Examples of social class differences in attention, cognition, and attunement to others. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40, e327. [commentary] 

Varnum, M. E. W., & Hampton, R. S.# (2017). Culture and self-other overlap in neural circuits. In N. Gonzales, E. Telzer, & J. M. Causadias (Eds.), Handbook of Culture and Biology 9pp. 443-464). New York, NY: Wiley.

Kwon, J. Y.,# Hampton, R. S.,# & Varnum, M. E. W.(2017). The cultural neuroscience of socioeconomic status. In A. Ibanez, L. Sedeno, & A. Garcia (Eds.), Neuroscience and Social Science: The Missing Link (pp. 383-395). Springer.

Varnum, M. E. W.,& Hampton, R. S.# (2017). Cultures differ in the ability to enhance affective neural responses. Social Neuroscience, 12, 594-603.

Sevincer, A. T., Varnum, M. E. W., & Kitayama, S. (2017). The culture of cities: Measuring perceived cosmopolitanism. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48, 1052- 1072. 


Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossmann, I. (2016). Pathogen prevalence is associated with cultural changes in gender equality. Nature Human Behaviour, 1, 0003.

Varnum, M. E. W.(2016). The emerging (social) neuroscience of SES. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10, 423-430.


Varnum, M. E. W., Blais, C., & Brewer, G. A. (2016). Social class affects Mu-suppression during action observation. Social Neuroscience, 11, 449-454.

Cohen, A. B., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2016). Beyond east vs. west: Social class, region, and religion as forms of culture. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 5-9.

Varnum, M. E. W., & Kwon, J. Y. # (2016). The ecology of withdrawal. Commentary: The NEET and Hikikomori spectrum: Assessing the risks and consequences of becoming culturally marginalized.  Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 764. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00764.


Varnum, M. E. W., Blais, C., Hampton, R. S., # & Brewer, G. A. (2015). Social class affects neural empathic responses. Culture and Brain, 3, 122-130.

Grossmann, I., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2015). Social structure, infectious diseases, disasters, secularism, and cultural change in America. Psychological Science, 26, 311-324.

Sevincer, A. T., Kitayama, S., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2015). Cosmopolitan cities: The frontier in the 21st century? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1459. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01459

Varnum, M. E. W. (2015). Higher in status, (even) better-than-average. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 496. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00496.


Varnum, M. E. W., Shi, Z., Chen, A., Qiu, J., & Han, S. (2014). When “your” reward is the same as “my” reward: Self-construal priming shifts neural responses to own vs. friends’ rewards. NeuroImage, 87, 164-169.

Jiang, C., Varnum, M. E. W., Hou, Y., & Han, S. (2014). Distinct effects of self-construal priming on empathic neural responses in Chinese and Westerners. Social Neuroscience, 9, 130-139.

Varnum, M. E. W. (2014). Sources of regional variation in social capital in the United States: Frontiers and pathogens. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8, 77-85.

Smith, G. E., James, L. E., Varnum, M. E. W., & Oyserman, D. (2014). Give up or get going? Productive uncertainty in uncertain times. Self and Identity, 13, 681-700.

Kitayama, S., Varnum, M. E. W., & Sevincer, A. T. (2014). The frontier: Voluntary settlement and cultural change. In A. Cohen (Ed.), Culture Reexamined: Broadening Our Understanding of Social and Evolutionary Influences (pp. 93-127). Washington, DC: APA.


Han, S., Northoff, G., Vogeley, K., Wexler, B. E., Kitayama, S., & Varnum, M. E. W. (2013). A cultural neuroscience approach to the biosocial nature of the human brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 335-359.

Grossmann, I., Na, J., Varnum, M. E. W., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2013). A route to well-being: Intelligence vs. wise reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 944-953.

Varnum, M. E. W. (2013). Frontiers, germs, and non-conformist voting. Journal of Cross- Cultural Psychology, 44, 832-837.

Varnum, M. E. W. (2013). What are lay theories of social class? PLOS ONE, 8, e70589. doi:109371/journal.pone.0070589.

In the News and More!

Science Mag (Podcast): How we might respond to aliens (Mar 2018)

The Atlantic: How Psychologists Predict We'll React to Alien News (Feb 2018)

New York Post: Hollywood gets gigantic terrifying aliens all wrong (Feb 2018)

National Geographic: How would people react to alien life? (Feb 2018)

Scientific America: Is humanity ready for the discovery of alien life? (Feb 2018)

NBC News: Discovering alien life might not bring response you'd expect (Feb 2018)

The Independent: Humans will be happy if aliens invade earth, scientists say (Feb 2018)

The Guardian: Humans likely to welcome alien life rather than panicking study shows (Feb 2018)

NPR: Could a more individualistic world also be a more altruistic one? (Santos, Varnum, & Grossmann, 2017) 

LiveScience: Humans Would Be Cool with Finding Aliens (6 Dec 2017)

The Washington Post: How will humanity react to alien life? Psychologists have some predictions. (4 Dec 2017)

New York Magazine: Rich People Literally See the World Differently (14 Feb 2017)

Gender equality and infectious disease. A study posted Nov 14 in Nature Human Behavior by Michael Varnum and Igor Grossman (University of Waterloo) goes viral with hits from major news outlets including:  

The Washington Post, Women have more rights in places with fewer pathogens
(14 Nov 2016)
The New Scientist, Gender equality is boosted by better infection control
(14 Nov 2016)
The Conversation, How a decline in infectious diseases may have boosted gender equality (14 Nov 2016)
ASU Now, Study suggests reducing disease spread could increase gender equality (14 Nov 2016)
de Volkskrant, Na perioden met weinig infectieziekten neemt de man-vrouwgelijkheid toe (15 Nov 2016)
ARS Technica, A psychological link between disease and gender equality (15 Nov 2016)
Newsweek, Gender Equality Is Driven By Fighting Germs and Infectious Diseases: Researchers (15 Nov 2016)
New York Magazine, When Infectious-Disease Rates Go Down, Gender Equality Goes Up (16 Nov 2016)

How Stuff Works features doctoral student Sarah Hermann's research in  A Few Encouraging Words Can Change the Lives of Female STEM Students  (posted 25 Oct 2016).

Sarah Hermann and team of researchers help young women in science with early intervention. Read more in ASU Now story by Emma Greguska,  Stemming the academic gender gap (posted 9, Sep 2016).

Professor Varnum has recently been elected a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP). SESP is an exclusive organization dedicated to advancing research in social psychology whose membership grows by no more than 5% per year.

Scientific American interviews Michael Varnum in its article, Liberals are from Mars, Conservatives are from Venus for May 1, 2016.


 Yahoo News. What Your Name Says About You (posted 3 Dec 2015). 


Professor Varnum’s work on cultural change (Grossmann & Varnum, 2015) has been receiving some attention in the news! You can find mentions of his work on the causes of rising individualism in the US in recent articles posted on Ozy, The Street and Live Science.

Sarah Hermann receives Continuing Excellence in Education Award from ASU's Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA)!  Each year, about a dozen graduate and professional students are recognized by GSPA for their excellence in teaching based on nominations by undergrads or peers. This year, the Department of Psychology is doubly-honored to have two of its doctoral students receive this honor and for Sarah, this is her second year in a row having received the Teaching Excellence Award last year.  Congratulations Sarah!  Posted 2/17/16.

Professor Varnum has been named a 2016 Association for Psychological Science Rising Star! According to APS, “the APS Rising Star designation is presented to outstanding psychological scientists in the earliest stages of their research careers post-PhD."

Sarah Herrmann has just accepted a tenure-track position. Starting this fall Sarah will be an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weber State University. Congratulations Sarah!

Sarah Herrmann has won the Cialdini Dissertation Prize for best dissertation in social psychology at ASU.

Professor Varnum’s work on naming is featured in this recent BBC piece.

Psychology Today highlights Professor Varnum’s work on how cultural factors influence the brain’s empathic responses. Read here.

Professor Varnum’s recent Nature Human Behaviour publication (Varnum & Grossmann, 2016) linking infectious disease to gender inequality is featured in the Boston Globe.