High-level cognition, judgment and decision-making, consumer behaviour, moral psychology, explanation and inference, intuitive theories, causal reasoning, social cognition, behavioral political economy.
I’m an experimental cognitive scientist. My work bridges basic research in high-level cognition and applied issues related to how people make sense of social, economic, and political institutions. A theme that runs through all of this work is the power—for good and ill—of the human drive to make sense of things.
On the basic side, I study explanation and morality. My interest in explanation revolves around the question of how people circumvent seemingly impossible computational limitations to build a reasonably accurate mental model of the world. My work on moral psychology has extended the study of explanation to the social domain, arguing that our moral judgments of others largely reduce to inferences about deeper character traits that best explain their behaviour. I am especially interested in seeing how this insight can explain judgments of prosocial behaviours and shed light on why many prosocially-motivated behaviours (e.g., many charitable donations) are actually rather ineffective at helping people.
On the applied side, I am interested in consumer behaviour and, recently, in how people make sense of economic events. Many economists have observed that the quality of a society’s institutions crucially determine economic outcomes in that society, yet the relationship between individual psychology and the kinds of institutions societies produce is not well-understood. A major thrust of my research going forward is in using experimental tools and computational modeling to understand how our explanatory and moral intuitions about economics shape and are shaped by social institutions such as markets.
I am accepting applications for PhD students. Right now I’m particularly enthusiastic about folk-economics, but applicants interested in any topic within my broad area of interest, on either the basic or applied side, are also encouraged to apply. To discuss possible supervision, please email me at sam dot g dot b dot johnson at warwick dot ac dot uk with a brief explanation of your research interests.
Representative Articles and Working Papers:
- Johnson, S.G.B., Zhang, J., & Keil, F.C. (preprint). Win-win denial: The psychological underpinnings of zero-sum thinking.
- Johnson, S.G.B., Bilovich, A., & Tuckett, D. (preprint). Conviction narrative theory: A theory of choice under radical uncertainty.
- Johnson, S.G.B. (preprint). Dimensions of altruism: Do evaluations of charitable behavior track prosocial benefit or personal sacrifice?
- Johnson, S.G.B., & Ahn, J. (2021). Principles of moral accounting: How our intuitive moral sense balances rights and wrongs. Cognition, 206, 104467.
- Johnson, S.G.B., Merchant, T., & Keil, F.C. (2020). Belief digitization: Do we treat uncertainty as probabilities or as bits? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149, 1417–1434.
- Johnson, S.G.B., & Steinerberger, S. (2019). Intuitions about mathematical beauty: A case study in the aesthetic experience of ideas. Cognition, 189, 242–259. [Scientific American] [BBC Radio] [TEDx talk]
- De Freitas, J., & Johnson, S.G.B. (2018). Optimality bias in moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 79, 149–163.
- Johnston, A.M., Johnson, S.G.B., Koven, M.L., & Keil, F.C. (2017). Little Bayesians or little Einsteins? Probability and explanatory virtue in children's inferences. Developmental Science, 20, e12483.