Research in the CORE Lab

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

To date, we have focused primarily on three types of cognitive construals: essentialist thinkingteleological thinking, and anthropocentric thinking.

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.