Hillary Lenfesty
Arizona State University

The Cognitive Foundations of Beliefs about Human Nature

Project Description:

This research proposal will engage with evidence from evolutionary and cognitive psychology to account for the role that cognitive biases play in the recurrence and variability of theological concepts which seek to explain the human condition.  Specifically, this project will begin with an examination of the ways in which the cognitive bias of psychological essentialism might underpin historically Christian perspectives (e.g., sinfulness) on human nature.  In addition, to what degree beliefs about human nature as declared by other major world religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) are supported or reinforced by psychological essentialism will also be examined. Finally, by drawing upon literature from developmental cognitive psychology, this project will evaluate how concepts underlying various explanations of human nature- essentialist or otherwise- might correspond with the general conceptual frameworks which emerge during early human cognitive development.  Results from this project will foster a new understanding of how the human brain as a product of biological evolution enables individuals to comprehend, evaluate, and ultimately commit to theological perspectives on human nature.
Hillary received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast.  Her doctoral research examined the concept of “moral contagion”- the notion that moral characteristics can be physically transmitted over time and space.  For this research, she employed several novel experimental paradigms to test this concept at the implicit psychological level.  Results will appear in her forthcoming article, “Perceptions of Moral Character Modulate Physical Distancing Responses”.

Her research interests include the presence and function of disgust reactions and contagion concepts outside of the biological domain. She has also conducted cross-cultural studies on moral reasoning and disgust sensitivity among “guajeros”- people who scavenge for their livelihood in the municipal garbage dump in Guatemala City- and continues to develop similar projects at field sites around the world.  For more information, visit www.hillarylenfesty.com