Victoria researcher receives Wegner Theoretical Innovation prize

Dr Rita McNamara, from the School of Psychology, received the award for her contribution to the 2016 article, “The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions.”

Dr McNamara, a lecturer of cross-cultural psychology at Victoria, worked with six other researchers from around the world to produce the article, which attempted to solve two, 12,000 year-old puzzles in human psychology and cultural history.

“This paper is the product of a deeply interdisciplinary collaboration among five psychologists, a historian, and an anthropologist,” says Dr McNamara, “It goes to show how communicating across disciplines and schools can produce important advances in how we think about big issues.

"The first puzzle was the rise of large-scale cooperation among strangers (i.e. the creation of communities, towns and then cities), which was remarkable as, prior to 12,000 years ago, people lived in relatively small-scale societies and the expansion of these societies increased the problem of free-riders. The second puzzle was the spread of prosocial religions during this same period."

In order to solve these puzzles, the researchers developed a cultural evolutionary theory of the origins of prosocial religions. They hypothesised that the two puzzles are linked—that the spread of prosocial religions led to the successful establishment of large-scale societies and that these religions were further spread as the societies expanded.

The article was published in the journal Behavioral and Brains Sciences.

“It was especially gratifying for my co-authors and me to see this work, which starts from a core of multiple disciplinary perspectives, gain recognition and influence the broader conversation about how we understand these phenomena,” says Dr McNamara.

About the Wenger Theortical Innovation Prize

The Wegner Theoretical Innovation Prize recognises the author (or authors) of an article or book chapter that is judged to provide the most innovative theoretical contribution to social/ personality psychology within a given year.  It is supported by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP).

Recipients receive a $500 honorarium (split between winning authors), an accompanying plaque and a complimentary one-year, SPSP membership.