Our Research

Our research addresses basic questions in cognitive science about how people organize and use their knowledge about the world. The answers to these questions transcend basic research to inform such far reaching issues as science education, social relations, and environmental stewardship. The work is framed by the view that humans possess powerful intuitive frameworks—arising through an interaction of evolved cognitive structures, personal experience, and culture. These “cognitive construals” provide fast and efficient, but potentially fallible guidelines for dealing with complex information.

Cognitive Construals

Essentialist Thinking

Essentialist thinking is a default template for mental representations of concepts; the central feature of this template is an assumed underlying, causal essence. This “essence” is thought to give category members their identity, and is responsible for similarities between category members. As a reasoning heuristic, essentialist thinking can give rise to a belief in innate potential; or the inevitable emergence of essential properties at some point. Underlying structure is another central feature of essentialism. That is, essentialist thinking leads us to readily form categories based on properties beyond those that are superficial or immediately apparent. You may think of essentialism as a “placeholder;” one can believe that a category has an essence without knowing what that essence is. 

Teleological Thinking

Teleological thinking is causal reasoning in which a goal, purpose, function, or outcome of an event is taken as the cause of that event. It is the cognitive belief that something can be explained as a function of its effect as opposed to a function of its cause. Teleological thinking is often explored in the context of evolution. We may consider, for instance, that mammals have hair or fur in order to maintain body temperature. Alternatively, it may be used in explanations of moral outcomes or object functions. To understand moral righteousness solely by an action’s consequence, or to define the origin of a fork entirely by its function to hold food would be teleological. Importantly, teleological reasoning is not always or necessarily incorrect, but it may lead to misconceptions. 

Anthropic Thinking

Anthropic thinking is the tendency to anchor our understanding of non-human entities in terms of our experience with humans. There are at least three major types of anthropic thinking. Anthropomorphism involves the attribution of human-like properties to non-human entities. Human exceptionalism describes the belief that humans are discontinuous from the rest of the natural world, unique, superior, and/or not subject to natural laws or processes. Human analogy involves using what we know about humans to embellish our understanding of other living things by creating analogies between humans and nonhuman animals. Anthropic thinking plays a large role in our understanding of biology, and in environmental thinking.

Cross-Cutting Themes

Domain Specificity

We view cognition as domain specific. Domain Specificity is the idea that cognitive processes may differ substantially as a function of what kinds of objects are being thought about.

Developmental Perspective

We study cognition from a developmental perspective. Our research stresses the importance of a developmental perspective in cognition by examining how conceptual processes change over time as a function of experience and maturation.

Comparative Approach

We adopt a comparative approach. We examine how differences in culture, experience, and expertise may lead to differences in basic cognitive processes.


We do basic cognitive science with an eye towards translation. We recognize that intuitive cognitive frameworks have profound consequences for how we communicate, participate in society, teach, and learn, and are committed to facilitating the practical use of our research in applied settings.

Some Current Projects

Humans naturally, intuitively, and effortlessly reason about biological entities, structures, processes, and phenomena in predictable ways. These common intuitions or mental shortcuts, which we call cognitive construals, are developed early in life and represent powerful, useful, and adaptive principles for organizing what we know about the biological world. Although understanding these construals is important in its own right, documenting the nature of informal intuitive biology becomes even more important in light of the fact that cognitive construals may interact with scientific reasoning in unanticipated ways and may have specific implications for science education. Recent work from our lab (in an NSF-funded collaboration with Dr. Kimberly Tanner of SEPAL at SFSU) demonstrate important links between intuitive ways of thinking and misconceptions in discipline-based reasoning and raise questions about the origins, persistence, and generality of relations between intuitive reasoning and biological misconceptions.

Another part of our current work focuses on how people organize their conceptual knowledge about social groups, and how that influences the assumptions we make about individuals.  Categories allow us to organize knowledge and generalize from limited experience, thus simplifying the bewildering array of information available to us. Essentialist thinking has been proposed as a pervasive conceptual bias resulting in a default assumption that members of a category share an underlying, invisible principle, property or nature that determines category membership and causes category members to exhibit a range of both observable and nonobvious shared properties. Social essentialism is the tendency to make essentialist assumptions about social groups (e.g., Black people, Catholics, Red Sox fans).  We are particularly interested in the circumstances under which these essentialist beliefs develop or change, as well as their meaning and consequences in our social lives.

We often see the social world around us as divided into many different social categories – but where do these social categories come from? Some people may think about social groups in terms of essentialist reasoning, thinking that people fit into distinct, homogeneous categories that are determined by something internal, like DNA. Others may think about social groups in terms of structural reasoning, viewing social categories as constructed by external, stable forces, like shared experiences and histories, government policies, and systemic disparities. 

Some of our projects focus on the way that formal education might impact how, when, and to what extent we use these different types of reasoning to think about social categories and the differences between them. In one such project, we are examining the way that learning about history and related topics impacts the way people think about social groups in the United States. 

In order to influence how people behave toward the natural world, we need to understand how they think about the natural world. The CORE Lab is involved in an interdisciplinary collaboration between cognitive, social, and environmental scientists, as well as environmental designers and visual artists. We leverage our expertise in construal-based intuitive thinking to address questions like:

How are commonsense understandings of ecosystems, and beliefs about our relations with such ecosystems, related to environmental values, attitudes, and sustainable behavior?

How are these relations impacted by our use of cognitive construals (essentialism, anthropocentrism)?

What interventions are effective in increasing pro-environmental values, attitudes, and behaviors?