Joseph WattsJoseph Watts

PhD, Psychology (Auckland)
BSc Hons, Psychology (Auckland)
BSc, Psychology & Philosophy (VUW)

Senior Lecturer

Room: Richardson 4S7
Phone: 64 3 479 8780

Joseph investigates how human evolution, culture and cognition interact. He is a member of the Centre for Research on Evolution Belief and Behaviour at the University of Otago and is currently leading a Marsden grant on the cultural evolution of theory of mind in the Pacific. He is also involved with numerous projects investigating cross-cultural patterns in religious belief and behaviour.

Prior to joining the University of Otago, Joseph was employed as a Research Fellow in the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Group at the University of Oxford, as well as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. He remains an external Research Associate of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.



Joseph is happy to discuss potential research projects and thesis ideas with prospective postgraduates. He enjoys working with students with a broad range of academic interests and backgrounds.

Otago's Ph.D. program is three years long and the university offers competitive scholarships to highly qualified applicants with a record of academic excellence. For general information on Otago's Ph.D. program see here.


Religions show variation between groups, they are transmitted and modified over generations, and they differ in their ability to gain and retain members. In other words, religions show the key properties of an evolutionary system. Much of Joseph’s research focuses on the cultural evolution of religious systems and what the dynamics of these systems can tell us about human cognition and behaviour.

Further information about Joseph’s research can be found on his personal website.

Selected Publications

Watts, J., Hamerslag, E.M., Sprules, C., Shaver, J.H., & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2022). Food storage facilitates professional religious specialization in hunter-gatherer societies. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 4, E17.

Jackson, J. C., Lindquist, K., Drabble, R., Atkinson, Q., & Watts, J. (2022). Valence-Dependent Mutation in Lexical Evolution. Nature Human Behavior.

Sheehan, O., Watts, J., Gray, R.D., Bulbulia, J. & Atkinson, Q.D. (2022). Coevolution of Religious and Political Authority in Austronesian Societies. Nature Human Behavior.

Watts, J., Jackson, J.C., Arnison, C., Hamerslag, E.M., Shaver, J.H., & Purzycki, B.G. (2021). Building Quantitative Cross-cultural Databases from Ethnographic Records: Promise, Problems and Principles. Cross-Cultural Research, 56(1), 62-94.

Watts, J., Passmore, S., Jackson, J.C., Ryzimski, C. & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2020). Text analysis shows conceptual overlap as well as domain-specific differences in Christian and secular worldviews. Cognition, 201(104290), 1-5.

Jackson, J.C., Watts, J., Henry, T.R., List, J.M., Forkel, R., Mucha, P.J., Greenhill, S.J., Gray, R.D., & Lindquist, K.A. (2019). Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure. Science, 366(6472), 1517-1522.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R.D., & Atkinson, Q.D. (2018). Christianity spread faster in small politically structured societies. Nature Human Behaviour.

Gray, R.D., & Watts, J. (2017). Cultural macroevolution matters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), 7846-7852.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature, 532(7598), 228-231.

A list of publications, book chapters and media coverage are available here.

University of Otago Religious Studies Programme